Iraqi Christians’ fears grow

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Wissam Sagman was thinking of emigrating recently, fearing his Christian family would not be safe in the new, chaotic Iraq. Now, after a series of coordinated bombings at churches in Baghdad and Mosul that killed at least seven people, his fears have grown and he plans to redouble his efforts to get out.

Although Iraq’s political and religious leaders have united to condemn Sunday’s bombings, and Sagman’s Muslim neighbors and colleagues have been dropping by to extend condolences, the Baghdad dentist feels the bombers simply want to drive out Iraq’s 750,000 Christians.

“These people, they love blood. They hate humanity. They hate us,” Sagman said, looking around his living room, wrecked by a car bomb attack on an Armenian church across the street. “They want all the Christians to leave.”

“This is my church! My church!” Thomas George, 73, cried, shaking his walking stick outside a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad that was targeted.

Muslim neighbors tried to console him.

One, Sadek Rabi, recalled attacks on Muslim places of worship that have killed hundreds.

“A Muslim can’t go to a mosque and a Christian can’t go to church now,” said the 32-year-old Rabi.

The bombings at five churches were the first significant strike on Iraq’s Christians since the ouster of Saddam Hussein last year. But even beforehand, some Christians were feeling Islamic fundamentalism closing in, and hundreds had fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria.

Other Christians emphasized that they had never felt any threat from Iraqi Muslims, and that the atmosphere in the community had been peaceful until Sunday’s attacks. Some made a point of visiting their Muslim neighbors whose houses had been damaged.

Majid Shammari shook his head in anger. It was not the damage to his stately home that outraged him, said the graying Muslim engineer. It was the terrorists’ cynical targeting of the Assyrian church next door, a community he said he had always been proud to know as a neighbor and friend.

“From the time of my birth, there has never been a question of whether you are Christian or Muslim,” Shammari said, sweeping up shards of glass from a shattered fish tank. “We rent our upstairs to a Christian family, we share food with each other. The bonds between all of us are very strong. What cowards are these terrorists to hurt the innocent, to try and break those bonds? If that is their aim, I swear they will never, never succeed.”

“We helped protect this church from looters during the war. It is a house of God, just like a mosque,” said Khadima Wadi, 54, a Shiite woman who lives with nine relatives in a one-room house behind the church. The blast broke all the windows in her house and blew off part of the roof.

“We slaughtered a sheep to the Virgin Mary and prayed for our sons to be safe during the war,” Wadi said. “Now we ask her to take revenge on these criminals.”

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said authorities would “use all available force, both Iraqi and those of multinational forces in Iraq, to pursue and destroy the people who plan and carry out such atrocities.”

On Monday, a previously unknown group called the Committee of Planning and Follow-up in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombings and warned more attacks would follow. There was no way to verify the authenticity of the statement, which was posted on an Islamic Web site.

Associated Press

A nun walks Monday past cars that were damaged Sunday in a bombing outside a Baghdad church.

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