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Iraqi Christian religious leaders demand an international investigation into deadly wedding fire

BAGHDAD (AP) — Christian religious leaders in northern Iraq called for an international investigation Monday into a deadly wedding fire that killed more than 100 people last week and slammed the government’s probe, which had blamed the blaze on negligence and lack of precautionary measures.

An Iraqi Syriac Catholic priest, meanwhile, said widespread corruption in the country and the influence of armed militias on the government was one of the factors that enabled the fire.

Father Boutros Sheeto, spoke to The Associated Press over the phone from the town of Qaraqosh, where five members of his family, including his Iraqi-American sister, were buried on Monday morning. He claimed the fire was “intentional,” without offering any evidence.

Scores of panicked guests surged for the exits on Tuesday night in the Haitham Royal Wedding Hall in the predominantly Christian area of Hamdaniya in Nineveh province after the ceiling panels above a pyrotechnic machine burst into flames.

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Iraq released the results of its probe on Sunday saying unsafe fireworks were the main reason that caused the fire that killed 107 and injured 82. Several local officials in Nineveh were also subjected to “administrative measures” because of negligence.

“We reject the idea that the cause of the fire was an accident,” Sheeto said. “We are confident that it was intentional and therefore we demand an international investigation.”

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Ten of his relatives, including his sister Faten Sheeto who had traveled to Iraq from her home in Arizona to attend the wedding were killed by the fire.

Iraqi media quoted Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako from Rome as saying the blaze “was the act of someone who sold his conscience and nation for a specific agenda.”

In July, Sako left his Baghdad headquarters and returned to northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region after Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid revoked a decree recognizing his position as patriarch of the Chaldeans, Iraq’s largest Christian denomination and one of the Catholic Church’s eastern rites.

Another Iraqi Christian religious leader, Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Benedictus Younan Hanno said a probe should be done under “the supervision of international investigators,” and added that he and others among the Iraqi Christians do not accept the results of the Iraqi probe.

On Monday, the Nineveh Heath Department updated the death toll to 113, including 41 who have not been identified yet. It said 12 people who suffered severe burns were sent for treatment abroad and eight will follow.

The tragedy was the latest to hit Iraq’s Christian minority, which has dwindled to a fraction of its former size over the past two decades.

The decline started before the militant Islamic State group’s persecution of religious minorities after the extremists captured large parts of Iraq in 2014. Christians were among groups targeted by militants as security broke down after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.

The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003. Iraq’s total population is over 40 million.

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Mroue reported from Beirut