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11 Killed in Coordinated Attacks on Iraqi Christians

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The operation could not be mounted quickly enough to prevent two more explosions, one outside the Chaldean Patriarchate in the southern district of Dora and the other in New Baghdad, a working-class neighborhood to the east.

The apparent target was St. Elya’s Chaldean Church, but an adjacent Shiite mosque, its minaret almost nuzzling the church’s cross, bore the brunt of the blast. Onlookers said funerals were being held at both houses of worship when the car bomb detonated.

Maher Mahmoud Mohammed, 35, whose barbershop sits near the mosque and the church, was outside when the bomb exploded. He said the force of the blast knocked him down and punched out his shop’s windows. He struggled to get up, then bolted, joining dozens of others who had poured out of the two religious buildings.

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Minutes later, he sat in a hospital, the left half of his tank top scarlet from the blood that seeped from his cuts. His anger at those responsible was just as inflamed. “These are cowards and criminals,” he said as victims in adjacent rooms screamed in pain. “They’re not Muslims.”

On a nearby gurney, the mosque’s elderly spiritual leader, Sayyed Qassim, lay naked and blackened, his body smeared with salve, his quavering voice saying the name of Allah over and over.

His son rushed in, collapsing to the floor and clapping his hands to his face as he cried out, “Father! Father!” The holy man’s followers crowded into the hospital, some of them sobbing.

At the scene of the blast, Nazhat Abd was outraged.

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“What are they targeting? Churches and mosques are places to give prayers to God. It’s the same. These terrorists don’t differentiate between anybody anymore, between innocent and guilty, Christian and Muslim.”

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Times staff writers Megan K. Stack, Edmund Sanders and Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bombs target Christians

Bomb blasts rocked four Christian churches during evening services in Baghdad and one church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday, killing at least six people and wounding dozens of others.

Iraq’s Christian minority

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Christians total about 800,000, or about 3% of Iraq’s 24 million population, and live mainly in Baghdad.

Christians were free to worship under Saddam Hussein, who, despite his persecution of majority Shiites, officially preached religious tolerance.

Christians are worried that religious tolerance could suffer in post-Hussein Iraq and have said they fear persecution from Muslims who associate them with the U.S.-led multinational forces, who are seen as coming from Christian nations.

There has been a string of attacks in recent weeks on liquor and record stores throughout Iraq, whose owners are often Christians.

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Explosions

1. A bomb explodes near an Armenian church in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood.

2. A car bomb explodes at an Assyrian Catholic church in Karada.

3. A car bomb explodes outside a Chaldean Christian church in Baghdad’s Dora district. Five people are killed.

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4. A bomb explodes between a Chaldean church and a mosque in New Baghdad.

5. At least one car bomb explodes outside a church in Mosul. One person is killed.

Sources: Reuters, Times staff


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