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.
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."
(In the aftermath, few Iraqi Christians who spoke to WORLD were willing to be identified in print, obviously fearing for their safety. Underscoring the concern, an Iraqi employee of The New York Times covering the church bombings had his name withheld from the paper's report.)
Church leaders find themselves in an unhappy predicament: posting guards and setting up walls around facilities where they have worked hard to be good neighbors.
At St. Peter and St. Paul church, Catholic groundskeepers bolted gates normally left ajar. At the Alliance church, workers hauled an oversized flatbed truck to one end of the street as a barrier. At the other end, they posted guards next to a barricade of bricks, logs, and cardboard barrels. At St. George's Anglican Church, an evangelical congregation whose building was renovated through joint efforts of Iraqi Christians and U.S. chaplains, signs advertising English-language services came down.
At the Presbyterian church in Mosul, one of Iraq's longer-standing congregations started by missionaries in 1820, both pastor and congregation have found themselves under increasing vigilance. Last month the pastor's own wedding was moved north to an affiliate church in Dohuk after threats from a local mosque to disrupt his services. Twelve guards stood watch outside during the marriage ceremony, even after it was relocated. During the Sunday blasts, Iraqi police defused a bomb near the Presbyterian church after two bombs went off outside Mar Polis, a traditional Aramaic-speaking church in central Mosul, killing one and wounding at least 15.
Christians have lived in Iraq for 2,000 years. The Assyrian Church of the East is the oldest in Iraq; it was founded in a.d. 33. Chaldeans, many of whom continue to speak and/or worship in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, are the majority among the descendants of early Mesopotamian Christians. Orthodox churches blend with Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize the pope but maintain some measure of their own autonomy-all in all, making for a liturgical soup of Armenian Catholics and Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics and Syrian Orthodox, along with Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities, Anglicans, Baptists, and evangelicals. Christians reportedly numbered 1 million before the 1991 Gulf War, when many left for the West. Now their numbers are around 800,000.
Since the most recent war, churches are growing in both number and size. More importantly, they are acquiring a multiethnic face, as Assyrians and Chaldeans, Kurds and Turkomans, even former Baathists and an occasional Muslim convert-freed from the police state-can worship together. Clergymen, too, have formed transethnic and transdenominational ties because for the first time in memory they can travel the country freely and meet together. A pastor's conference last spring attracted dozens of clergymen, including many recent returnees.
Once isolated congregations also are learning to work in partnership with one another and with parachurch groups. The St. Peter and St. Paul church, which also includes a seminary and health clinic, has been a focus for community outreach and charity. Given the facility's extensive damage and security concerns, however, outreach may have to wait.
Muslims and Christians showed signs of solidarity in the traditionally mixed neighborhoods of Karada and elsewhere. After all, mosques were first bombed months ago. One local glass shop offered to repair church windows at wholesale. Muslim neighbors showed up at hospitals to check on burn victims. Christian clergy visited Muslim homeowners nearby to see whether they suffered damage.
Iraq's Shiite and Sunni leaders issued public statements against the attacks. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani denounced the "criminal campaign targeting Iraq's unity, stability, and independence." The Association of Sunni Muslim Scholars condemned the attacks as "totally remote from any religious or humanitarian norms."
Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said Christians should not interpret the attacks as a warning to leave Iraq. "We can't afford to lose any of them, to be quite honest with you," Mr. Rubaie said. "Iraq will be a big, big loser. This blow is going to unite Iraqis."
Government leaders have increased awareness about the importance of the Christian minority, which has a strong business presence, higher education levels, and more open and steady ties to the West.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh promised beefed-up security near churches. He said authorities would hunt down those responsible. "The Christian community in Iraq is respected and valued," he told reporters. "They are loyal Iraqi citizens, and any attack on them is an attack on all decent Iraqis," adding, "We are determined to defeat the terrorists who so brutally seek to disrupt social peace."
With singed cars as a reminder and fear as a companion, Christian survivors are hard-pressed to find a silver lining in the week's death toll. But many may now more purposefully join Muslims, truck drivers, government leaders, and U.S. soldiers who-left to puzzle together the who, what, when, and where-more urgently want to know how to stop the killings.