By Joseph DeCaro, Worthy News Correspondent
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (Worthy News)-- A Muslim cleric has issued a fatwa threatening Iraqi Christians unless they convert to Islam, but the country’s prime minister urged them to stay.
On Egyptian television last week, Ahmad Al Hassani Al Baghdadi called Christians "friends of the Zionists" and said "their women and girls may legitimately be regarded wives of Muslims".
Al Baghdadi's fatwa casts a cloud over the re-opening of the Baghdad church that was the scene of a massacre where nearly 60 were killed and more than 100 injured by militant lslamists affiliated with al-Qaeda.
At the inauguration ceremony, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged EU countries to refrain from encouraging Iraqi Christians to emigrate; he then asked Christians to remain in Iraq "so the East will not be emptied [of] Christians just as the West is not emptied [of] Muslims”.
Iraq's Christians have been subjected to kidnappings and murders following the US-led invasion in 2003. As a result, thousands of Christians have fled the nation: their numbers have fallen from 1.5 million in 1990 to less than 400,000 today.
Many Christians have left for the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan where Christians are relatively well-treated.
Herman Teule, director of Eastern Christian Studies at Radbound University in the Netherlands, said Christians in the Kurdish regions are benefiting from government programs that build homes for refugees.