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More Iraqi Christian Refugees Seek Asylum in U.S.
by Leonard Novarro, Reuters - September 24, 2000
Posted: Monday, September 25, 2000 00:25 am CST

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A group of 40 Christian Iraqi refugees detained by Mexican authorities is expected to cross the border and appeal for religious asylum in the United States on Sunday or Monday, sources close to the families said.

Earlier in the day, 22 Iraqi Chaldean Christians were released from a Tijuana hotel and allowed to cross the border, where U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials began processing their applications for asylum.

Members of the religious group say they are persecuted in their homeland and face death if returned. INS officials have said their asylum requests will likely be granted.

The INS has interviewed 124 Iraqi immigrants, including 42 children, all members of the Chaldean Christian religious group. A total 200 refugees are seeking asylum in the United States, claiming religious and political persecution in predominantly Muslim Iraq.

Father Michael Bazzi, pastor of San Diego's St. Peter Chaldean Church, said the INS released 36 Iraqis to friends and family in the city's 20,000-strong Chaldean community on Saturday night and early Sunday. He expected the INS to allow another 22 to join relatives in the community on Sunday.

To celebrate, church members and a few of the immigrants had dinner and attended mass on Saturday night.

``When they came here, everybody was waiting for them with cheers and joy,'' said Bazzi. ``It's the greatest. To me, it's a miracle.''

However, none of the refugees would talk to the media for fear of retaliation against family members back in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the INS has beefed up operations here to handle the influx of asylum-seeking Iraqi immigrants that began Tuesday as small groups began crossing the border on their own.

By Thursday, 77 had crossed while another 126 remained in the Tijuana hotel, detained by Mexican federal police for being in the country illegally after learning of their whereabouts.

One of them, Warina Buine, 43, who shared a hotel room with her sons, Ameel, 19, and Rafie, 23, said her family had been living in Greece for five years waiting to make this trip.

``The U.S. is good to all people,'' she told the San Diego Union-Tribune, although she would not discuss why she and her sons left Iraq.

Another man, who did not give his name but said he was 25, told the paper his father and older brother were killed in Iraq and that he fled due to religious and political persecution. ``I don't know why they wanted to hurt us,'' he said.

Some of the immigrants told Mexican and U.S. authorities that they had been traveling for more than a year after leaving Iraq, through Turkey, to join U.S. relatives.

Eight U.S. members of the local Chaldean community are still detained by Mexican police on various charges, including smuggling.

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