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Aswat Al-Iraq

Soft targets

Web Extra | Attacks on churches in Baghdad and other cities show vulnerability of Christians despite security gains

The good news, following two days where nine church-related facilities in three Iraqi cities were bombed, was that no one was killed. The bad news, as church leaders assessed the damage and comforted their flocks, is that militants appear to be targeting Christians in Iraq more directly than before. Bad news-with thousands of Iraqi Christians already having fled the country and fear of further attack-triumphed over the good.

The first wave of attacks took place Sunday morning, Jan. 6. At approximately 11 a.m., a bomb exploded outside St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad (see "Houses of God," Jan. 12/19 WORLD), destroying its rear entrance.

Within five minutes of the attack, militants also bombed Malkeits Orthodox Church and a Chaldean convent in the Zafaraniya area of Baghdad. Church leaders reported that six people were wounded in the blasts, which took place on Epiphany, also celebrated as Christmas Eve in the Eastern liturgical calendar followed by most churches in Iraq. Church leaders believe the attacks may have been orchestrated to coincide with the holiday, or with the arrival of President George Bush, who toured the Middle East Jan. 6-16.

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At the same time in Mosul, which lies on the ancient ruins of Nineveh 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, bombers struck two churches as well as a Catholic bishops' center recently converted to an orphanage.

Inside the orphanage at the time of the explosion were 30 young girls, all under 12 years old. None were hurt but damage in the area was extensive. In Mosul's Ancient Assyrian Church of the East, at least four people were wounded, one seriously, when a parked car exploded as a service was about to begin. Arriving worshippers had noticed a suspicious car parked outside the building, even looked beneath it. The car exploded just as they entered the church but caused no deaths.

Bombers struck again Jan. 9, hitting a Chaldean Catholic Church and a Syriac Orthodox Church, both in Kirkuk. The first bombing, at Jesus Heart Catholic Cathedral, exploded between the sanctuary and a kindergarten, but 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 again claimed no casualties.

Following those attacks, Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian Orthodox priest in northern Iraq, told WORLD: "It's a message to us that so-called improved security is no security for Iraq's minorities."

Christians did not have to wait long to actually read the writing on the wall. The next day a hand-painted warning appeared in Arabic on the wall of a Catholic church in Mosul. It warned Christians not to attend the church and asked them to leave Mosul. At the same church, priest Raghid Kanni and three church deacons were murdered one year ago.

Christians living in Mosul also received individual warning letters the day before the Sunday attacks. Composed in rough script, the letters claimed to be from "Al Qaeda Organization in Islamic State of Iraq." They warned "infidel Christians that if you don't believe in Allah and his messenger Muhammad son of Abdullah (Allah's prayers and peace be upon him) and if you don't leave your places, all of you will be slaughtered in three days."

After examining the warning letters, Youkhana said he doubted that they came from larger, well-organized jihadi groups. But whoever sent the letters obviously shares the larger groups' extremist ideology and should be taken seriously, he said, since they were able to pull off the attacks, or coordinate with those who did.

After the first attacks Iraqi forces provided additional security in streets surrounding the churches in Mosul and Baghdad. At a U.S. briefing, 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," but did not specifically note attacks on churches.

Chaldean Archbishop Faraj Rahoo told ankawa.com news service that the government must recognize that the bombings are part of a plan to drive Christians out of Iraq. "We have been living in Iraq before Islam, but those strangers who came to the city are causing the kidnappings and bombings and trying to sow sedition in the hearts of Iraqis," he said.

Over the past year, militant Islamic groups have evicted Christians from entire Baghdad neighborhoods by threatening them with kidnapping and death and extorting a tax on non-Muslims.

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."

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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