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Danger and deliverance

At least eight churches have been attacked by suicide bombers or lethal explosive devices in the lead-up to Iraqi elections

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

A Kirkuk pastor we shall simply call Haytham was traveling the busy four-lane from Baghdad back to his home and stopped at a prominent intersection to buy dates and oranges. Quickly he realized he'd been followed. Two thugs pulled him from his car, stole his cash, and pushed his nose to the pavement. Only a day before, insurgents had shot three Iraqi election workers in broad daylight on a busy street in Baghdad. Haytham was sure he would die.

"Now shoot him," one said to the other. But the seconds passed like long minutes, and finally the other said, "I can't." With that the two were gone, stealing Haytham's car and money but leaving his life intact.

Danger and deliverance appear equally indiscriminate for Christians living in Iraq today. Most remember suffering with their Muslim neighbors under Saddam Hussein, sometimes even improving relations in that grim fraternity. While bigger and better mosques proliferated, Saddam would not allow new churches to be built. But overall he persecuted Christian and Muslim enemies alike.

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Now the landscape for the churchgoing minority has changed. Iraq's church leaders are associated with the West and targeted for perceived, or real, ties to the United States. In the early days of war, Haytham (who like many church leaders no longer feels comfortable sharing his name or being quoted in the press) met with U.S. chaplains stationed at the air base outside Kirkuk. He encouraged them to visit his church, one of the largest evangelical congregations in Iraq. Meetings and Bible studies followed, an encouragement to Iraqi churchgoers and good cultural immersion for U.S. soldiers in an otherwise restive city. Since his near-death experience, Haytham discourages Western visitors.

At least eight churches have been attacked by suicide bombers or lethal explosive devices in the lead-up to elections. Another clergyman who pastors Iraq's oldest Protestant congregation, founded in 1820 at Mosul (referred to locally as Nineveh), is recovering in Lebanon from the wounds of one of those attacks. Pedestrians in Mosul's old city will find these words in graffiti: "Kurds + Christians = Israel."

Last week gunmen made off with a key church leader, the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul, 66-year-old Basile Georges Casmoussa. He was forced into the trunk of a car as he left a parishioner's home but set free 24 hours later, unharmed. The Vatican called the abduction a "despicable terrorist act."

Under tenuous security interdenominational squabbles for the country's many Christian denominations sometimes fester. What's important, say evangelical pastors, is to forge good ground-level relations with local-and mostly Muslim-government leaders. Attacks on churches have actually not only drawn sympathy from some of Iraq's political leaders but served to remind them that Christians in Iraq are a viable-and long-suffering-voting bloc.


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