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Iraq prime minister condemns extremist targeting of Christians

| Sunday, July 20, 2014, 8:33 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister on Sunday condemned the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's actions targeting Christians in territory it controls, saying they reveal the threat the jihadists pose to the minority community's “centuries-old heritage.”

The comments from Nouri al-Maliki were made a day after the expiration of a deadline imposed by ISIS calling on Christians in the militant-held city of Mosul to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. Most Christians opted to flee to the nearby self-rule Kurdish region or other areas protected by Kurdish security forces.

“What is being done by the Daesh terrorist gang against our Christian citizens in Ninevah province, and their aggression against the churches and houses of worship in the areas under their control reveals beyond any doubt the extremist criminal and terrorist nature of this group,” al-Maliki wrote in a statement released by his office, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“Those people, through their crimes, are revealing their true identity and the false allegations made here and there about the existence of revolutionaries among their ranks.”

At the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed his concern for Mosul's Christians, offering prayers for Iraqi Christians who “are persecuted, chased away, forced to leave their houses without the possibility of taking anything” with them.

Residents in Mosul say ISIS fighters recently have begun to occupy churches and seize the homes of Christians who have fled the city.

Those actions stem from the harsh interpretation of Islamic law the group seeks to impose on the territory it controls in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

In Mosul, the extremist group has banned alcohol and water pipes, and painted over street advertisements showing women's faces. It has, however, held off on stricter punishments.

Iraq's Christian communities date back to the first centuries of the religion. Before the 2003 United States-led invasion, about 1 million Christians called Iraq home. Since then, the community has been a frequent target for militants, and attacks prompted many Christians to leave the country. Church officials estimate the community at about 450,000.

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