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Iraqi Christians Protest Slayings

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) -- At least 1,000 minority Christians, many holding olive branches, marched in protest near the restive city of Mosul on February 28 to urge the Iraqi government to act decisively after a series of killings.

At least eight Christians have been killed in the last two weeks in the turbulent northern city, 390 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad, prompting Pope Benedict to appeal on Sunday for Iraq's Christians to be better protected.

Two of those attacked had gone missing, their bodies later found dumped in the street with gunshot wounds. Others were shot dead in the street, near their homes, or at their place of work.

Some 683 Christian families, or 4,098 people, fled Mosul between February 20 and 27 following the attacks, a United Nations report said on February 28.

The killings came just weeks before Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election, which has the potential to help cement an end to seven years of war or plunge a still-divided country into a new cycle of violence.

"I appeal to the civil authorities to complete every effort to give security again to the population, and in particular, to the most vulnerable religious minorities," the Pope said in his weekly blessing from Vatican City.

Priests in religious vestments led the protest procession in the Christian town of Hamdaniya, 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Mosul.

"The blood of innocents screams for terrorism and violence to be stopped," read one banner.

Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda have long targeted Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, and other Iraqi minorities, as well as majority Shi'ites, whom they consider heretics. Christians number an estimated 750,000 in Iraq, a small minority in a country of 28 million.

Al Qaeda has vowed to use "military means" to derail the national ballot next month, which it sees as a farce to ensure Shi'ite domination of Sunnis.

Targeting Christians is an effective way to highlight the shortcomings of Iraq's security forces, given the media attention that attacks against Christians attract. Iraqi Muslims are killed in much greater numbers.

Making life especially difficult for minorities in Iraq's north is their precarious position among the region's larger Arab and Kurd communities, which are feuding over land and oil.

The dispute has left a security vacuum in some areas which al Qaeda has exploited, even as its influence has waned elsewhere in Iraq.

"We blame the federal and local governments and the head of security operations in Nineveh (province) for the killing of our Christian sons," said Saad Qanyous, one of the Christian protesters.