Baghdad, Dec 22 (DPA) A radical Islamist militant group issued a new threat against Iraqi Christians as more religious leaders Wednesday cancelled Christmas festivities over concerns of sectarian attacks.
A statement demanding the release of two Muslim women allegedly held by Egypt's Coptic Church was posted on Islamist websites and attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a group with links to Al Qaeda.
If the two women are not released 'it will cost you dearly', the ISI said, addressing Christians. The group also alleged missionary activity was taking place in the Middle East.
The ISI has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church in October that killed at least 63 people, mostly worshippers and two priests, and said Christians are legitimate targets.
With security a constant worry, major cities, including Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul announced that Christmas festivities would be cancelled.
The faithful 'will only perform mass and pray for Iraq and its people against the backdrop of mourning for the victims of the Church of Our Lady of Salvation', Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sacco told DPA.
Breaking with tradition, joyful singing and large celebrations were scratched.
The archbishop noted that 'there are occasional incidents of violence targeting different groups, and this includes Christians'.
According to the UN, over 1,000 Christian families have fled Iraq since the Oct 31 attack on the Assyrian-Catholic church Our Lady of Salvation. Many more have left the central regions of the country and sought refuge in the Kurdish north, in the latest exodus of the minority group.
Iraqi newspaper al-Sabah meanwhile reported that President Jalal al-Talabani wants to create so-called protected areas where Christians can go when threatened.
Already, concrete walls are being erected around Christians places of worship, in an effort to prevent more attacks like the October massacre.
Abdullah Nawfali, head of the government agency which oversees Christian affairs, said a 'safe haven' within Iraq could help prevent further exile of Christians.
Nawfali said al-Talabani proposed the idea 'although Christians do not want to be separated from society', and added that the minority group has been present in the country since the advent of the faith.
Iraq's northern areas are home to some of the oldest Christian sects in the world.
The Christian population, estimated to have numbered well over a million people prior to the 2003 US-led invasion, has been halved, according to unofficial figures, owing to sectarian violence.