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11 Killed in Coordinated Attacks on Iraqi Christians

August 02, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In a wave of coordinated attacks aimed at Iraq's Christian minority, a series of bombs exploded Sunday outside five churches thronged with worshipers here and in the northern city of Mosul, killing 11 people and injuring dozens more.

It was the first time in this nation's 15-month insurgency that Iraqi Christians were targeted, further fraying the country's delicate religious fabric and raising fears of increased sectarian conflict.

Attackers timed some of the blasts for maximum effect, during evening services that attracted hundreds of faithful. Bloodied and dazed, churchgoers spilled onto streets littered with shards of stained glass and splinters of wood as smoke billowed above them.

"I was praying inside the church with all these people when all the windows shattered," said Father Rafael Kutaimi of an Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood, where a car packed with explosives blew up during the 6 p.m. service. At least a dozen worshipers were wounded.

"They came into a holy place," Kutaimi said of the attackers, as bystanders scurried away from U.S. armored vehicles that had rolled to the scene. "If they're against the Americans, let them kill the Americans. We're all Iraqis, innocent people. I don't know what their goal is."

Within an hour, four churches were hit in three neighborhoods in the Iraqi capital. The Iraqi Ministry of Health said early today that 11 people had died and 52 were injured.

In perhaps the deadliest of the attacks, twin blasts struck the Chaldean Patriarchate in southern Baghdad, killing a child and at least four other people as churchgoers began arriving for Mass around sunset. Witnesses said they saw two men pull up in separate cars, park them near the church, then casually walk away before the vehicles exploded, hurling debris as far as 100 yards.

The church served as a bomb shelter during last year's U.S. invasion, and local residents, Muslims and Christians alike, banded together to protect it from looters. "We have all lived here in peace for a long time," said Ali Abdulla, 28, who rushed from his house across the street to help the injured.

Around the same time as the Baghdad explosions, at least one car bomb went off outside a church in Mosul, incinerating a passing motorist and wounding four other people. The toll could have been higher if all the mortar shells in the car had detonated, police said.

It was not immediately clear if any of the bombings were suicide attacks. U.S. military officials here said the bombs seemed crudely made, casting doubt on whether fugitive militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi had masterminded the plan.

Still, the organized assault punctured the sense of relative immunity that many of Iraq's 800,000 Christians had felt, not only during the bloodshed of the last year but stretching back to the reign of Saddam Hussein, who actively cultivated the support of religious minorities as a bulwark against the country's Shiite Muslim majority. Better educated than many Iraqis, Christians here have traditionally exercised an influence disproportionate to their small numbers. Former Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, now in U.S. custody, is a Christian who was a powerful player in Hussein's inner circle.

Many Christian professionals and businesspeople have fled Iraq in the last 30 years for better economic opportunities and to escape periodic outbreaks of hostility against them. In the late 1980s, during a campaign against ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq, Hussein's forces destroyed scores of Christian villages, demolished ancient monasteries and churches, and forcibly moved Christians to Baghdad.

In addition to Sunday's bombings -- which elicited a condemnation from the Vatican -- recent weeks have seen a nationwide rise in attacks on liquor and record stores, whose owners are often Christians and whose wares are forbidden by strict Muslims.

Although some Christians predicted that more of them would want to flee Iraq, others pledged to stay, such as engineer Skender Melconian, 59, a leader among Armenian Christians. "This community has been in Baghdad since 1911," he said. "Now is the time for Iraqis to build their country out of the ashes. But there's a drive from some people to move us backward."

In March, four American Christian missionary workers were shot to death in Mosul, though it was unclear whether they were targeted because of their religion or because they were foreigners. Sunday's attack was the first coordinated assault aimed at Iraqi Christians.

An Armenian Christian church in the Karada neighborhood was the first to be targeted. It is a few blocks from the Assyrian Catholic church, which was hit about half an hour later, leaving a smoking crater.

Soon after the second bombing, officials with the U.S.-led multinational forces ordered Iraqi police to sweep other churches in the city. Officers found an unexploded device in one, which U.S. teams disabled.

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