Officially the death toll for the Christmas Day bombings in Baghdad is 39, but some authorities in Iraq are putting the number closer to 100, according to Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s, the largest church in Baghdad.
The multiple bombings, which targeted St. John’s Church and a market in the surrounding neighborhood of Dora, also wounded more than 100, including members of White’s church.
“A lot of our people live in Dora,” said White of the largely Christian enclave in the southern part of the city, “and many of them went to church closer to their homes on Christmas Day.”
Confusion over the number of casualties doesn’t mask a stark reality: Insurgent attacks in Iraq are up, particularly against soft targets, and particularly against Christians.
The bomb that detonated outside St. John’s Church went off in the parking lot just as worshipers were leaving the Christmas service. Just before the service began, three explosions in a crowded market nearby killed and wounded dozens.
The dead included women and children, as well as Iraqi police posted to guard the church because of threats. One police officer stationed at St. John’s told The New York Times he didn’t know how the bomb-rigged car made it into the church parking lot, given stepped-up security.
Upcoming elections are fueling a rise in violence, according to White, and the already decimated Christian community is a target. A decade ago Iraq had an estimated 1.5 million Christians, but now Christians number about 200,000, White said (not counting Iraqis who have taken refuge in the northern region called Kurdistan).
The Anglican clergyman said more than 3,000 people have left his congregation in the last three years.
“I used to tell my people, ‘Please don’t leave.’ Now I can’t say that,” White said. “How can you say to people to stay when they are being killed?”
White has an adopted Iraqi son who was forced to leave Baghdad this week after someone personally delivered a threat to him for “working with an Englishman.”
White took over St. George’s Anglican Church shortly after the U.S. invasion, as Iraqi clergy and U.S. military personnel restored and reopened the only Anglican church in Iraq, built in 1864. The church has since been damaged by five bombings, and a number of its clergy killed. White said, despite the losses, attendance remains strong: about 3,000 Iraqis attend services spread over four days each week.
I reached the vicar in England, where he returned to see his own family over Christmas. Will he go back? “Of course I will go back,” he said. “I won’t leave my people … never.”