By BosNewsLife Senior Correspondents Stefan J. Bos and Eric Leijenaar
MOSUL, IRAQ (BosNewsLife) -- Aid workers rushed Friday, October 17, to assist at least 10,000 Christians who so far fled Mosul amid fresh reports that Islamic extremists are trying to eradicate the Christian population in this northern Iraqi town.
Netherlands-based Open Doors, an organization assisting Christians persecuted for their faith, told BosNewsLife it is distributing food, cooking equipment and blankets among some 200 displaced families from Mosul, where up to 40 Christians were killed by militants in recent days.
"However with winter arriving they will also need heating and fuel. We also want to expand our aid to other families," Open Doors said. "Besides prayers and political action, Iraqi Christians are requesting materiel help."
About half of the remaining Christians in Mosul, "nearly 10,000 people," have fled in the past week after attacks and threats, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Friday, October 17. The refugee agency quoted Iraq's ministry of displacement and migration as saying that about 1,560 families or 9,360 people left Mosul, some 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
UNHCR could not confirm the figure, but was concerned about the mass displacement. "The displaced population would represent about half of the Christians in the Mosul area," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters, adding that they need relief items including food, clothing, blankets, stoves and clean water.
Other Christian sources, including the well-informed rights group International Christian Concern (ICC), estimated that over 15,000 Christians fled so far. It was difficult to reconcile these different figures, but Open Doors confirmed its representatives saw a "continues influx" of refugees. Many of them stay in community buildings, including churches, and tents.
"We hear that extremist Sunni Muslims want to cleanse the traditionally Christian town of Mosul of its Christian population and other non-Muslims. To reach that aim, they have reportedly even killed people at illegal roadblocks because they were Christians," Open Doors added. In addition, militants drive through the streets with loud speakers urging Christians to leave Mosul immediately, witnesses said.
Open Doors said its reports suggested that some 40 people have been killed in recent days, while other Christian sources mentioned 15 Christians. Open Doors said it has the names of 11 victims. "Especially men were killed, but also a boy of 15 years old who was playing with his Islamic friends outside, and an old man in a wheel chair," the group added.
News of the killings came as Iraqi security forces detained four men on Friday, October 17, for allegedly planning attacks on members of Mosul's Christian community, the Agence France Presse (AFP reported. "Four people have been arrested today in Mosul's northern neighbourhoods of Al-Jaza'ar and Al-Nabi Yunus," the French news agency quoted defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari as saying. "They are suspected of planning the attacks against the Christians in Mosul."
Iraqi authorities did not yet publicly announce who is behind the worst violence against Iraqi Christians in years, although the Al-Qaeda terror network is suspected of supporting the attacks, several sources said.
It was difficult for investigators to assess the situation in Mosul, which is divided by the river Tigris. Most reports of attacks come from the eastern part of the town, Open Doors said. Iraqi authorities pledged to send some 1,000 police to protect Christians, but that has done little to calm down the situation, Christian groups suggested.
"There is panic among Christians in Mosul. Most of them flee north," to nearby areas, around the ancient Biblical city of Nineveh and towns further away, Open Doors explained.
ICC investigators told BosNewsLife that it appears the latest violence against Christians erupted following a demonstration they staged to demand quotas for minorities in local representations. Iraqi officials removed this guarantee when they enacted a new election law on September 26, 2008.
Though the latest violence against Christians began reportedly soon after the demonstration, there is "a more fundamental reason" behind it, said Michael Youash of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project in a statement distributed by ICC with Website www.persecution.org "There is an obvious effort that has been ongoing since late 2005 and early 2006 to ethnically and religiously cleanse Iraq of the Chaldean-Assyrian Christians."
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