Baghdad: The UN criticised Sweden on Friday for deporting five Iraqi Christians back to their homeland as Iraq`s Christian community comes under severe threat of militant attacks.
Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled abroad or to the relative safety of Iraq`s northern Kurdish region since an October 31 siege on a Catholic church in Baghdad that was taken hostage during a Mass service by suicide bombers who ultimately killed 68 people.
The UN`s High Commission for Refugees said the five deported Christians were part of a group of at least 20 Iraqis who failed to gain asylum in Sweden and were flown out on Wednesday.
In a Friday release, the refugee agency called itself "dismayed" over the deportation and called on countries to take in Iraqis from Baghdad, Kirkuk and three northern provinces that the UN considers unsafe because of repeated attacks, sectarian tensions and human rights violations.
"We have heard many accounts of people fleeing their homes after receiving direct threats," said Melissa Fleming, a Geneva-based spokeswoman for the UN agency. "Many of the new arrivals explain they`ve left in fear as a result of the church attack on October 31."
"Some were able to take only a few belongings with them," Fleming said.
Wednesday`s deportations come less than a week after an Iraqi-born Swede blew himself up in a botched bombing in central Stockholm, killing himself and injuring two people. They also come as fears steadily grow due to attacks by Islamic extremists on Christians and churches across Iraq.
An al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for the October church massacre, threatening even more violence against Iraq`s remaining Christians.
Fleming estimated 1,000 families have left Baghdad and the northern Ninevah province since the October attack. She cited a "a slow but steady exodus" of Christians headed abroad or to the relative safety of the self-rule Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
US officials in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon also reported a growing number of Iraqi Christians arriving and asking the agency for help, Fleming said.
In Syria, the agency estimated about 133 families — or about 300 individuals — have reached out to applied for refugee status since November. Most cited the church siege as their reason for fleeing.
The number of Christians who applied for asylum with the UN in Jordan also doubled in the past two months compared to the same time last year, the agency said.
Also on Friday, a roadside bomb in southeast Baghdad exploded as Shi’ite pilgrims were returning home from the holy city of Karbala in the south, after final ceremonies ended for Ashoura, the Shi’ite Muslims` most solemn religious event of the year. Eight pilgrims were wounded, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.