BAGHDAD (BP)-Five Catholic churches in Iraq were targeted in car bomb attacks Sunday, Aug. 1; 11 people were killed and dozens were wounded in the first large-scale terrorist attacks against Iraq’s Christian minority, an estimated 3 percent of the nation’s 24 million people.
Four churches in Baghdad were struck in the orchestrated attacks, along with a church in Mosul in northern Iraq. The churches trace their lineage back to the first century, long predating Muhammad’s founding of Islam in 622 AD.
Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians in the Middle East, reported in a news release Aug. 2:
“The government of Iraq has been quick to portray these attacks as an attack on the whole of Iraq. Likewise, Muslim leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and a spokesman for the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaking on the Al-Jazeera news channel, have spoken in support of the Christian community.
“Many in Iraq believe that one objective of the insurgency is to divide the population on religious lines as a means of preventing the new government [from] operating successfully,” the Middle East Concern news release stated.
MEC, based in Loughborough, England, is a coalition of organizations and individuals that has sought to aid persecuted Christians in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Libya.
The Aug. 1 attacks against the Catholic churches were timed after 6 p.m. when Sunday evening worship services were underway.
The MEC news release noted, “Church services are held on Fridays and on Sunday evening because Sunday is a working day, the weekend being Thursday and Friday,” in the Muslim country.
“Places of worship are easy targets because it is well known at what times there will be large gatherings of people,” MEC stated.
MEC also noted: “Priests and other Christian leaders fear these attacks will prompt an exodus of Christians from Iraq. Up till now, they have persuaded people to stay, however, they now feel they have few arguments left to counter those seeking to leave. One priest said, ‘[I]t would be very bad for Iraq if the Christians left’ because it would not help the establishment of a pluralistic, tolerant country.”
The Baghdad targets of the Aug. 1 terror attacks, according to MEC, were the Armenian Catholic Cathedral; Our Lady of Salvation Church; Saint Elijah of Heyra Church; and St. Peter and St. Paul Church. The Mosul target was St. Paul Church. MEC reported that police also found a bomb outside St. John the Baptist Church in Baghdad that failed to explode.
The Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government offices are located, is about a mile west of the neighborhood where the Armenian cathedral, also known as Our Lady of the Flowers Church, and Our Lady of Salvation are located about 500 feet from each other.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad released a statement after the attack, declaring, “We deplore these cowardly and murderous bombings and condemn those responsible for them. We extend our condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured. As despicable as these bombings are everywhere and at any time, to target those in a house of worship is particularly horrible and cruel. We reiterate our support for Iraq’s interim government and assure all Iraqis of our continued commitment to their freedom, security, and prosperity.”
The attacks followed a recent series of attacks and threats against liquor stores mostly owned by people in the Christian sector, according to various news reports.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani condemned the attacks as threatening “Iraq’s unity, stability and independence.”
“We condemn and reproach these hideous crimes and deem necessary the collaboration of everyone – the government and the people – in putting an end to aggression on Iraqis,” the Shiite leader also stated.
“We assert the importance of respecting the rights of Christian civilians and other religious minorities and reaffirm their right to live in their home country Iraq in security and peace,” al-Sistani said.
The spokesman for radical cleric al-Sadr told Al-Jazeera television, “This is a cowardly act and targets all Iraqis.”
The interim government’s interior ministry spokesman, Sabah Kadhim, told the Voice of America the church bombings and similar attacks bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda.
“… I don’t think it’s a question of just a person like [Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi], wherever he is or whoever he is, really conducting all this,” Kadhim said. “To me, I think the facts are there were training camps in Afghanistan and therefore there are fully trained terrorists from throughout the Middle East, who are misled to believe that there is this fight between Christianity and Islam.”
The government’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told CNN that the thrust of the attacks against Christians and their coordinated timing point to al-Zarqawi.
The Iraqi official speculated that al-Zarqawi’s goal include driving a wedge between Iraq’s Muslims and Christians; fueling the perception among some Iraqis that the Christian minority is helping the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq; and heightening anti-Christian sentiment among Islamic radicals in the Sunni Triangle to build pressure for a Christian exodus from Iraq.
The four car bomb explosions in Baghdad were timed within a two-minute span, according to the Associated Press.
“We were in Mass and suddenly we heard a big boom, and I couldn’t feel my body anymore,” a blood-covered worshiper from Our Lady of Salvation Church later told a reporter with USA Today.
Another worshiper from the church told a Chicago Tribune reported that he had just taken communion when the bomb was detonated. “We saw the roof, pieces of glass and everything else coming down on us,” the 72-year-old man said. “People started running for the doors. People near the cars were burned severely. There was fire and smoke everywhere.”
A priest from the church told the Tribune, “It is a terrible thing to target the house of God, whether it’s Christian, Muslim or Jewish,” describing the victims as “innocent people who were created only to love each other.”
In addition to the recent attacks and threats against liquor storeowners in Iraq, a report by CNSNews.com recounted a number of violent incidents, including:
— “Hani Matti Betti, the Christian owner of a restaurant in Mosul, was murdered [in mid-July], reportedly after being accused of serving Americans,” CNSNews.com recounted. “The militants blinded and cut off the hands of his business partner, a Muslim.”
— “On June 26, the sister of a Catholic priest in Mosul was injured when two men threw a hand grenade from their passing car towards the church.”
— “On June 7, seven people were killed in two drive-by shootings apparently targeting Christians in an Assyrian district in Baghdad.”
— “In February, five Christian roadside vendors were shot dead by gunmen in Basra.”
— “On a number of occasions, bombs have either gone off in churches without hurting anybody or have been found and defused before detonation. Offices and representatives of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian party, have been shot at or otherwise targeted for attack.”
— “Posters have been pasted in the north warning Christians to covert to Islam or leave Iraq. Priests and lay Christians have been threatened with death or kidnapping.” One warning notice posted on a website instructed “a Christian family to convert and for the women and girls to wear the hijab (Islamic veil). Disobedience would result in death and the destruction of their home,” CNSNews.com recounted.
Under Saddam Hussein, CNSNews.com added, paraphrasing a report by the U.S.-based Chaldean News Agency, “the government razed hundreds of Assyrian villages in an attempt to assimilate the minority into Arab society.” Christians also were the focus of regulations forbidding Iraqis from giving newborn children any names other than Arab names and churches from publishing religious calendars unless sayings from Saddam Hussein were printed alongside those of Jesus.
Compiled by Art Toalston