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Photo provided by Christian Aid Program in Nohadra, Iraq

Car bombs hit two Iraqi churches

Web Extra | No casualties reported in latest string of church attacks

Two churches in Iraq were hit with car bombs today, in what eyewitnesses say appear to be a string of coordinated attacks targeting the country's established church. Today's bombings, which took place in Kirkuk and did not result in casualties, follow attacks last Sunday morning on four Iraqi churches and three convents in Baghdad and Mosul.

Those attacks-also car bombings-took place within five minutes of each other at approximately 11 a.m., the day many Eastern Christians, including Iraqis, celebrate either Epiphany or Christmas Eve according to Eastern liturgical calendars. With the additional attacks today, hitting a Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk and a Syriac Orthodox Church, Iraqi Christians believe they have been targeted, unlike in recent months, as a reminder of their vulnerability: "It's a message to us that so-called improved security is no security for Iraq's minorities," Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian Orthodox priest in northern Iraq, told WORLD.

It's also widely believed in Iraq that President George Bush will make a surprise visit to the country during his Middle East tour, and that terrorist groups may have stepped up attacks as a warning against it. The U.S. president arrived in Israel today and will be in the region through Jan. 16. At a briefing in Baghdad today, Major General Mark Hertling, commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq, noted a rise in recent weeks in what he called "spectacular events" designed "to incite fear in the population."

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Since 2004 approximately 40 churches have been bombed, with no claims of responsibility by militant groups. Most have taken place in largely Sunni sectors, causing church leaders to suspect al-Qaeda in Iraq. "When Christians have been the target of killings and kidnappings, we know it can also be the work of criminal gangs, but when it comes to bombs and churches, this is terrorism," said Youkhana. "And there is no easier place to bomb than a church."

The first bomb in Kirkuk today took place at Jesus Heart Catholic Cathedral, exploding between the sanctuary and a kindergarten. No one was in the building at the time.

The second bomb went off moments later at St. Afrem Syriac Orthodox Church in a residential area, but also claimed no casualties.

Sunday's attacks hit St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad (for a profile of the church, see Houses of God, Jan. 12/19, 2008), Malkeits Orthodox Church, and a Chaldean convent in the Zafaraniya area of Baghdad. In Mosul, bombers struck two churches on Sunday, as well as a Catholic bishops' center recently converted to an orphanage. Inside at the time of the explosion were 30 young girls, all believed under 12 years old. None were hurt but damage in the area was extensive. In Baghdad church leaders reported injuries following Sunday's bombings but have not supplied specific details or numbers.

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