PARIS (Reuters) - A French mission to rescue victims of a church massacre in Baghdad has raised questions about the fairness of such operations, with rights groups calling for the rescue of all Iraq's threatened groups, not just Christians.
Two months after gunmen burst into the Syrian Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation during Sunday mass and killed 52 people, some of the victims are recovering near Paris thanks to an airlift by the French government.
Father Rafael Quteimi, a 70-year-old Catholic priest, was shot in the stomach and his hearing was damaged by the gunfire and grenade blasts.
He and 36 members of his congregation arrived in early November aboard a medically equipped plane dispatched by France's foreign ministry. They were given medical treatment and are now living at a shelter near Paris. A total of 150 are expected.
"If France had not sent a plane for us, we would still be there, in danger," Quteimi said.
But the group are an exceptional and tiny minority among thousands of Christians from cities such as Baghdad and Mosul who have sought refuge in the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan or neighbouring countries.
In the six weeks after the attack, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said some 1,000 Christian families, roughly 6,000 people, had fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas.
While the threats to them have become more frequent at home, Western countries have grown more reluctant to welcome victims of the unpopular war in Iraq.
Sweden, Denmark and Britain have closed their doors to new arrivals, and even begun deporting some displaced people back to Middle Eastern transit countries such as Syria and Jordan.
Germany and the United States still welcome thousands of Iraqis every year, although the political will to admit more seems to be waning in both countries.
France has taken in far fewer refugees from Iraq than, say, Britain, Germany or Sweden. But it has drawn attention to the plight of Iraq's Christians in particular, and these account for the bulk of the 1,300 Iraqi refugees it has accepted.
France's airlift has its attractions as a one-off act to deal with a specific emergency, but does little to address a far wider problem.
"International systems for refugee processing are massively inefficient," said Becca Heller, head of the U.S.-based Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal representation for displaced Iraqis.
"The argument for group evacuation is that it's far more efficient: rather than negotiate each case for eight hours, you can set a criterion for everyone, like proving you are a Christian, and negotiate asylum for a group."
However, she said such an approach risked appearing to discriminate between threatened minority groups, of which there are many, from Kurds to the Sunni minority and Shi'ites living in Sunni areas, she added -- a view shared by the UNHCR.
Ignace Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, said the October 31 attack marked a point of no return.
"The Christian community has long been targeted, but an attack on this scale was unheard of," he said, on a visit to Paris. "They can no longer live in big cities such as Baghdad and Mosul."
But he said encouraging Christians to flee Iraq altogether was not desirable, as militants who want them out would claim victory if Iraq was emptied of them.
There were once about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, most of them Syrian or Chaldean Catholics. Now there are estimated to be about 850,000 out of a population of around 30 million, although Younan said the true number might be only half that.
OTHER MINORITIES AT RISK
Still, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which deals with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, said there were other groups in Iraq in need of rescue.
"Our policy is that, although Christians are a minority at risk, so are all minorities including Shias in majority Sunni areas, Armenians, Christians, and Palestinian refugees," said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler.
His concern over apparent selectiveness in France's refugee policy for Iraqis echoes louder objections raised in the fall, when France came under a hail of criticism from rights groups and the European Commission for expulsions of Roma migrants.
A French diplomat who declined to be named said there was no restriction in the Geneva Human Rights convention against using religion as a criterion to select refugees, as long as their situation at home was deemed life-threatening.
Elish Yako, head of the Aid Association for Christians of the Orient, said he regretted the doubts about France's aid effort. "There is no outcry when France takes in Muslims, but now we hear criticism for only 150 Christians -- it's sad."
For the evacuees, staying in Iraq after the attack was not an option.
"I almost lost my life ... it's not good for us to be there now," said Naima, 19, a public administration student at Baghdad University whose shoulder was injured in the attack. She asked that her surname not be used for fear of reprisals against family members who stayed in Iraq.
Father Quteimi still recalls the attack with horror.
"I took with me whoever I could into the sacristy. We could hardly breathe. They (the attackers) were among us ... I was shot in the abdomen," he said, pointing to his wound.
Some saw the rescue as a chance to start a new life.
Dawood, another student who declined to give his full name, said he had no intention of returning to Iraq, and hoped to bring family members to France.
"No place is safe for us," he said.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)