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Terror's next target in Iraq

"Terror's next target in Iraq" Continued...

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

(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.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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