CWN.org -- Iraq's prime minister on Sunday sought safeguards for small religious communities in the mainly Muslim country as Christians protested parliament's decision to stop setting aside seats for minorities on provincial councils.
Parliament last week approved a new law mandating elections in most of Iraq's 18 provinces. But the law removed a system that reserved a few legislative seats for Christians and other religious minorities.
The action undermines the ideal that Iraqi society aims to be inclusive and pluralistic, Ketih Roderick of Christian Solidarity International told CBN News.
Parliament's act sends a clear message to Christians that 'we don't want you here," said Roderick. CSI is an advocate for Christians in Iraq, lobbying the U.S. and Iraqi governments for greater protections.
Click on the player above to hear the full interview with Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International.
Lawmakers cited a lack of census data to determine what the quotas should be. But many Christians saw the move as an effort to marginalize their community.
"I think that some political groups are pushing the remaining Christians to leave Iraq," worshipper Afram Razzaq-Allah said after services at a Catholic church in Baghdad. "They want us to feel that we are no longer Iraqis."
In a letter sent to parliament Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed to the legislators and the electoral commission to restore the quota system.
"The minorities should be fairly represented in the provincial councils and their rights should be guaranteed," al-Maliki wrote.
Iraq's Presidential Council still has to approve the final version of the law and could decide to restore the quotas, Roderick said.
Hundreds of Christians staged street protests after Sunday church services in and around Mosul, a northern city where many of the country's Christians live. Some said the removal of the quotas is an attempt to force them to leave Iraq.
"This is an unjust decision and it affects our rights as Christians," Matti Galia, a local politician, said at a rally in Mosul. "We are original citizens in this country. The politicians' goal was to divide the Iraqi people and create more struggles. Indirectly, they are telling us to leave Iraq."
Roderick said attempts have been made to politically marginalize Iraq Christians in the past. In the 2003 elections, there were a number of instances where Christian minority villages were denied votes when ballots where not delivered to their villages, he said.
Iraq's Christians have been targeted by Muslim militants since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with priests, churches and Christian-owned businesses attacked. The violence has led many Christians to flee the country.
Sectarian violence has receded since U.S. troop reinforcements were sent in last year. However, U.S. commanders have warned that extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq are still trying to rekindle sectarian warfare to undermine the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
The Christian minority hasn't benefitted from the peace, according to Roderick. The surge has pushed the extremists out of Baghdad and into northern parts of the cities, where most Christians live. The extremists have continued to threaten and attack Christians in Mosul, forcing thousands to leave the country, he said.
"In the city of Mosul there were 25,000 Christians, now it's down to about 5,000. It's an appreciable kind of exodus of the Christians from Iraq that has gone on unabated, there are still people leaving. The hemmorage has not stopped for the Christians," Roderick said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.