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In Iraq, Christians fear they could be wiped out – like Jews before them

The Oct. 31 attack on a Baghdad church – the worst in recent memory – has spurred a fresh exodus among Iraq's Christian community, already decimated by the war.

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“There is nothing left here – staying in this situation with all this threat is very difficult,” says Atheer Elias Medhat, a parishioner whose face was marked with the shrapnel. “There isn’t a strong government that can imprint its authority on the country.”

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At other Sunday church services there were far fewer worshippers than usual. Congregants said many were staying in their homes. Some women were covering their hair in the street to avoid being identified as Christian – a practice not widely seen since the peak of sectarian violence in 2006-07.

'Very strong reaction to the massacre'

For years before the Oct. 31 attack, Christians have made up a disproportionate percentage of Iraqi refugees. In a bid to stem the flow two years ago, the Iraqi government appealed to European countries not to accept them simply on the basis of religion. Britain, Sweden, and other countries this year began returning failed asylum seekers of all religions back to Iraq, despite advice from United Nations refugee authorities that it still isn't safe.

Church officials worried about an irreversible exodus had encouraged Christians to remain in Iraq. That position has now become less clear-cut.

"We tell them they should remain here but we can’t make them, because they have a very, very strong reaction from the massacre that took place,” says Syrian Catholic Bishop Mati Shaba Matoka, one of a delegation of church leaders who met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week.

Bishop Matoka says Mr. Maliki told them the attackers were able to get through checkpoints with weapons and a car filled with explosives because of "traitors" in the security forces. The explanation, similar to that following other deadly attacks, worries many in the church and outside as an indication that the government does not have control of security.

“We as men of religion have limits,” he says. “I want officials to take it upon themselves to provide a reasonable level of security so when we tell people it is their duty to stay and be patient, they accept it.”

Like many Christians, Matoka says the US handling of the war made the situation worse for the Christian community.

"When they came, they should have provided peace so people could live in peace and stability and not let it fall apart the way it did," says the bishop, whose church was bombed in 2004.

As he speaks, the lights go out in one of the city's regular power outages. "There is no electricity, there is no water, the streets are all broken, there's no opportunity for people to work – would the Americans accept this situation developing in their own country?"

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