Iraqi Christians who were given indefinite political asylum in France say they don't want to return to their home country.
Thirty-six Iraqi Christians who survived the attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad were taken to Paris last month where they were given medical care and asylum.
Some survivors still had bullet or shrapnel wounds and were immediately taken to hospitals to be treated upon deplaning, reported France 24 on Monday. Lyes, who survived a bullet wound in his abdomen, said he wants to stay in France and try to bring his wife and two children over to start a new life.
"I don't want to go back to Iraq so long as the situation is like that. It keeps getting worse and worse," said Lyes to the France 24 news crew while lying in his hospital bed. "Since getting to France I've seen on TV that there have been other attacks on Christians in Iraq. After going for the churches, they are now attacking Christians in their own homes."
He recalled the traumatic incident on Oct. 31 when gunmen perpetrated the deadliest attack against the Assyrian Christian community since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003. At least 58 people were killed during the massacre, including three Catholic priests.
"They came in suddenly, shooting in all directions," recalled Lyes. "We heard explosions outside. There was panic. We didn't know what was going on. I don't know who shot me. The bullet hit me from behind and came out here right in the front. I felt a burning sensation in my stomach and I put my hand over it and I could feel I was bleeding. That is when I knew I had been shot."
Other Iraqi Assyrian Christians lucky enough to go to France and be given a fast pass in the immigration process are, however, unsure if they will stay or return to Iraq.
Wanda, another church attack survivor, is wavering on whether to stay in France or return to Iraq. The mother of four is in Paris but her thoughts are with her three children still in harm's way in her homeland. She was able to come to France to assist one of her daughters who was hit by a bullet during the church attack.
"My youngest is fifteen and it's the first time I've ever missed his birthday," said the heartbroken mother who feels that she abandoned her children to be in France. "I feel terrible for not being with him."
Attacks on the tiny and defenseless Christian community in Iraq has been unrelenting since Oct. 31. The latest attack occurred Sunday when gunmen shot and killed an elderly Christian couple in their home in eastern Baghdad. Weeks earlier, a six-year-old girl and her Christian father were killed in the northern city of Mosul and two Christian men were killed in their living room in the same city.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni Islamic insurgent groups that include al-Qaida in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for the Oct. 31 and the Nov. 10 attacks that killed another five people in several Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad.
Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, a group that supports persecuted Christians, went as far as to label the attacks against Christians "religion-cide."
"Baghdad right now is just gripped by terrorism against the Christian community and there is no other way to put it," he said in an earlier interview with The Christian Post.
There are only about 600,000 Christians in Iraq now, down from about 1.2 million before the U.S-led invasion in 2003, by some estimates. Most of the Iraqis have fled to nearby countries including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.
Although Christians compose only three percent of Iraq's 26 million people, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted, they make up nearly half of the refugees fleeing Iraq.
"We are not going to apologize for welcoming Christians," said Eric Besson, former minister for immigration and national identity, to France 24. "Of course it is normal to, given the history of France and Europe."
Responding to complaints that Iraqi Christians are getting special treatment, he noted that no one said France was discriminating when they welcomed Muslims from Kosovo.
In addition to France, a significant number of Iraqi refugees also seek asylum in other Western countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden, according to the UNHCR.
A UNHCR poll released in October found that the majority of Iraqi refugees regret returning home after living in neighboring countries. The survey found that 61 percent of those interviewed regretted returning to Iraq from their country of asylum, mainly because of insecurity and personal safety concerns.
Most Iraqis who returned did not want to do so but were forced to because they could not afford the cost of living in asylum states. Many refugees are in their asylum countries illegally and therefore cannot find legal work or housing.
"Since 2003, it has all gone wrong in Iraq. The war. The daily attacks on the Iraqi people," said the Iraqi Christian mother Warda to France 24. "The aim of terrorism is to destroy the country and divide the Iraqi people and to even say we are not real Iraqis."