More than 35,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to Syria to escape the violence in their country, the leader of an Iraqi Christian group said Thursday.
Christians, who make up three percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are leaving because of individual threats from Muslim extremists and the general deterioration of security in Iraq, said Emmanuel Khoshaba, the Syrian head of the Assyrian and Democratic Movement.
His figure indicates an increase of 75% from the 20,000 Iraqi Christians who were said to have moved to Syria in 2004, the year after US-led forces invaded Iraq and began the conflict.
One Iraqi Christian refugee, Bassam Najjari, 29, said he arrived in Syria last month; 40 days after gunmen shot and injured him in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, as police looked on.
"I decided to leave Baghdad with my family," said Najjari, who is staying in a camp near the Syrian capital, Damascus, with his parents and brothers.
His brother, Wissam, said he plans to start his own business in Syria.
"There is no hope of going back home as the security situation is very bad and there is no indication that it would get better soon," Wissam said.
"We want to live in safety. We don't want to be killed. We love life," said another Christian refugee, Saddallah Mardini, 43.
Mardini said US forces should leave Iraq now.
"The occupation has brought destruction to Iraq," he said.
His wife, Wissam, 25, complained of shortages of electricity and water in Iraq.
"My kids go to school now (in Syria), which is something they were deprived of in Iraq," she said.
Syria's relaxed visa rules for Arabs, as well as its border and cultural proximity to Iraq, have attracted thousands of Iraqi refugees, Muslims as well as Christians. But a disproportionate number of the refugees are Christian.
The violence in Iraq has hit Christians as it has targeted Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
Seven Christians were killed in 2004 when suspected Islamic militants set off bombs in five churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul. It was the first major assault on Iraq's Christians since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003.
More recently, the Rev. Hanna Saad Sirop, the director of the Theology Department at Babel University, central Iraq, was abducted Aug. 15 as he left a Baghdad church after a mass celebrating the Assumption.