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Thousands of christians flee Iraq -

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Thousands of christians flee Iraq

Reporter: Mark Willacy

MAXINE McKEW: The christian community in Iraq has survived marauding foreign armies, the arrival of
Islam, and the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But now, tens of thousands of Iraqi christians are fleeing their homeland in fear of persecution
from muslim extremists.

The US-led occupation force is seemingly powerless to protect them, so many are packing up and
leaving to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan.

Middle East correspondent Mark Willacy reports from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

MARK WILLACY: Fleeing persecution and violence in their homeland, thousands of Iraqi Christians
have found peace and refuge in the Jordanian village of Al-Fuheis.

Most left Iraq after being threatened with kidnapping or death for practising their faith.

To these people, Iraq isn't just their home, it's a place central to the history of Christianity.

Testament and also Christians in Iraq - they are from, according to the history, it is from the
first and the second century, from the beginning of Christianity.

MARK WILLACY: Since the beginning of the insurgency in Iraq, Christians have found themselves the
target of criminal gangs and Muslim extremists.

In August, four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were blown up in coordinated car bombings, but
the most popular tactic used against the Christian community is kidnappings.

FARIS, IRAQI CHRISTIAN: All Christian people who are living in Iraq, they are educated - they are
doctors, engineers, they are afraid for their lives and their children.

Plenty of them were kidnapped.

Plenty of them were threatened to be kidnapped or to be killed.

MARK WILLACY: Faris fled Baghdad a few months ago with his wife and three children after several of
his colleagues were abducted and one was murdered.

Fearful for those he left behind, he didn't want to be identified.

Faris says the kidnappers target the affluent Christian community because it has the ability to pay
huge ransoms.

FARIS: They kidnapped their sons and they tortured them.

They used the telephone to phone their fathers and they put the telephone to the son and let him
cry or yell so that the father is afraid and he pays the money.

MARK WILLACY: The Diadoras Christian School in the Jordanian capital, Amman is struggling to cope
with the influx of Iraqis.

In recent months, principal Edward Eid has had to find places for 150 new students who have fled
their homeland with their parents.


You can see sadness through a lot of the students.

Sometimes they isolate themselves from other students in our classes.

So it's really bad, it's really bad.

MARK WILLACY: Nearly every Iraqi student here has a story about the kidnappings.

Bassam tells me how one of his relatives was abducted and the kidnappers demanded a $40,000 ransom.

But when it was paid, they killed him anyway.

"They cut off his head," Bassam says.

"They kidnapped my brother and when they brought him back, we saw that he had been tortured, his
neck was hurt," says Haman.

Just like the American occupation force, Iraqi Christians are denounced by Muslim insurgents as
infidels and collaborators.

Estimates of the Christian exodus from Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein vary between 40,000
and 200,000 with most ending up up in Christian communities in Lebanon, Syria and here in Jordan.

Under Saddam Hussein's secular regime, there was no systemic persecution of Christians, but the
dictator's fall has helped to loosen the lid on centuries of sectarian hatred.

Christians now look back at the Saddam era as one of prosperity and security.

FARIS: It was better because there was a system.

There wasn't any difference between Muslims and Christians.

We were secured.

MARK WILLACY: Now in many parts of Iraq, Christians are being warned to respect Muslim custom or
face the consequences.

EDWARD EID: They want them to live according to regulations and the law of the Islamic book.

They want them to change their appearance - their clothing, they have to cover their faces, long
sleeves and everything.

FARIS: I don't know what's the future, but we are Iraqis.

We like Iraq.

We like to live in Iraq.

My family lived in Iraq for more than 500 years.

We have roots there.

MARK WILLACY: For those like Faris who fled to safety in Jordan, Iraq will always be the promised

Christians believe Iraq was the site of the Garden of Eden and the place where Abraham was born.

Today, it is a place where being a Christian could get you kidnapped or even killed.

Mark Willacy, Lateline.