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23 hurt in Iraq church bomb blast

Twenty-three people have been injured in a car bomb blast outside a Christian church in northern Iraq.

Security forces also found and disabled two more vehicles packed with explosives outside two other parishes.

The bombing and the two foiled attacks in the northern city of Kirkuk signal continued violence against Iraqi Christians, nearly one million of whom have fled since the war began in 2003.

"The terrorists want to make us flee Iraq, but they will fail," said the Rev Haithem Akram, the priest of one of the churches that was targeted.

"We are staying in our country. The Iraqi Christians are easy targets because they do not have militias to protect them. The terrorists want to terrorise us, but they will fail."

The assault began at 6am local time on Tuesday when the car blew up outside the Syrian Catholic church, severely damaging the church and nearby houses, said police Colonel Taha Salaheddin.

The parish's leader, the Rev Imad Yalda, was the only person inside at the time of the blast and was wounded. The 22 other casualties were people whose nearby homes were hit by the blast, said Kirkuk police chief Major General Jamal Tahir.

Following the blast at the Syrian Catholic church, police discovered two more car bombs parked outside the Christian Anglican church and the Mar Gourgis church, both in central Kirkuk.

The ethnically and religiously mixed city of Kirkuk is located 180 miles north of the capital, Baghdad. Sunni extremists often target Christians who are seen as unbelievers.

Violence against Christians stepped up late last year, climaxing in the October 31 siege of a Catholic cathedral in Baghdad which killed 68 and injured dozens of others when al Qaida suicide bombers held worshippers hostage for hours before detonating their explosives belts.

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