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Terror's next target in Iraq

Church Attacks | In the first coordinated assault on one of Iraq's most important minorities, Islamist insurgents murder 12 and injure 60 Christians at worship. The success of the interim government's response represents the next test of its legitimacy-and of national unity in post-Saddam Iraq

Issue: "2004 Olympics Preview," Aug. 14, 2004

Most churches in Iraq hold services Sunday evening for a simple reason: Here, as in the rest of the Muslim world, the Christian Sabbath is a workday. So the coordinated attacks that struck the Christian community on Aug. 1 arrived in time for maximum carnage.

At six in the evening-just as most services begin-a car bomb exploded outside the Armenian church in Karada, a Baghdad neighborhood that was the heart of the Christian community before and during British colonial rule and where old-line churches post-Saddam thrive. Minutes later an explosion rocked the Catholic Syriac Church, also in Karada. Then, as the Chaldean Church of St. Peter and St. Paul emptied from evening mass, two blasts hammered the compound. Bombers also struck Mar Elya church in north Baghdad. At nearly the same time and 220 miles north, two car bombs exploded in central Mosul outside Mar Polis church.

Glass sprayed into nearby homes, parked cars erupted in flames, and massive plumes of smoke rose into the air. Fellow worshippers crawled over the wreckage in search of Bibles, crosses on necklaces, and other tokens to identify the scattered portions of the dead. Ambulances and police swarmed. U.S. Army helicopters responded to the smoke visible miles away, patrolling low overhead what had become-in less than an instant-a war zone.

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Chaldean Catholic priest Faris Toma stood in the wreckage outside his church where dozens of cars were upended and several propelled into the sanctuary by the force of the blasts. "We cannot understand why or how they could do something like this," he said. "All we can do is ask God to give them forgiveness and grant us peace."

Remarkably, out of hundreds of worshippers attending targeted churches and the snugly built neighborhoods where they reside, the attacks killed a dozen people-10 from Mr. Toma's church-and injured about 60. If the deaths were miraculously minimized, the choreographed stab at Iraq's Christian minority maximized the fear factor. More than a year after war ended and insurgency began, it was the first attack on Christian houses of worship.

Iraqi Christians now feel they are not only a minority but a targeted minority," said Nabil Haj, a U.S. military engineer and Lebanese-American who attends church in Baghdad. "Even evangelical practice and preaching is under attack."

Newer churches in Baghdad say they received threats ahead of the bombings. At the Christian Missionary Alliance church two blocks from the Catholic compound, where the worst attack took place, a warning letter from the "Fallujah Mujahideen" arrived four days before the Sunday bombings. Churchgoers told WORLD that they have received a variety of intimidating messages from militants ever since the Fallujah siege by U.S. forces in April, linking them to Western religion and vowing retaliation. Those threats could signal that Christians-numbering somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000-are next up on the terrorists' target list.

Experts increasingly pinpoint Fallujah and the surrounding Anbar province as the sending agent behind bombings. The dusty city of 300,000, located in the desert 40 miles west of Baghdad, is a locus of Saddam loyalists and Islamic fanatics. U.S. forces fought unsuccessfully-from ground and air-to control the city and rout opposition elements after Fallujahans killed four U.S. defense contractors and hung their bodies from a bridge last spring.

Under a controversial pact, U.S. forces have agreed not to enter Fallujah at all, leaving local militias and other militants in the hands of former Saddam loyalists fueled by anti-American clerics. In five months, the 4th Marine Regiment's Second Battalion has engaged in over 200 firefights in the area, absorbing close to 300 casualties while killing more than 1,000 guerrillas, according to former assistant secretary of defense F.J. Bing West, who is writing a book on the fight for Fallujah.

An insurgency with churchgoers and Bible believers at its bullseye comes as many churches, particularly those launched after the war, are straining at the highest points on the growth chart. Just weeks before the bombing, Christian Missionary Alliance pastor Ghassan Thomas told WORLD his Sunday evening services-which began only a year ago with less than 50 attendants-attract more than 450 worshippers. The church meets in an already expanded house and is looking for its third home. Mr. Thomas was administering communion Sunday evening when the blasts at the Catholic complex two streets over shook the Alliance building, knocking books from shelves and causing lights to flutter. "It shook the whole building," he said, "and people started screaming and leaving."

How many Christians will come back is the question church leaders are asking themselves. "Many people can no longer go to church regularly, they are forced by bombings to meet in homes" one pastor said. "With this explosion many Christians are planning to leave Iraq."

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