Blasts Target Christian Churches in 2 Iraqi Cities
In a recent interview, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, the Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, said Christians in Iraq were becoming fearful of growing Islamic militancy since the fall of president Saddam Hussein in April 2003, and that some were trying to leave the country.
"There is very real freedom," he said, "but we cannot enjoy it because of general insecurity, the high level of fanaticism and the belief of some Islamic leaders that Iraqi Christians are being assimilated into the coalition forces, who are perceived as Christians or even crusaders."
There are an estimated 800,000 Christians in Iraq, about 3 percent of the population. Most are Chaldeans or Eastern Rite Catholics who are independent from Rome but recognize the pope. There are also large communities of Armenian, Assyrian, Roman or Latin Rite, Greek and Syriac Catholics, as well as some Protestant groups. In Baghdad alone, where most Christians live, there are at least 50 churches.
Historically, Christians and Muslims have enjoyed peaceful relations in Iraq, and Hussein's government suppressed Islamic extremism while allowing Christians to worship. But in the 15 months since the U.S.-led invasion, militant Islamic groups have become active and organized. Young Iraqi Shiites have formed a militia, while Islamic militants with links to al Qaeda have assassinated officials, kidnapped foreigners and bombed police stations.
Some distraught worshipers on Sunday echoed Sleiman's concern that Iraqi Christians were being targeted because they represent a religion that Islamic extremists associate with the U.S.-led forces here. Recent terrorist attacks have focused on foreigners working with companies that supply U.S. military bases and on Iraqis who collaborate with U.S. authorities or join the Iraqi security forces.
"I am really frightened," said Farah Isa, 30, a Christian who was hurrying her two small sons home past the Lady of Salvation church shortly after the bomb blast there. "Now these people are attacking us directly, and during the day. What will we do? What is our fault if the Americans are Christians? Do they consider us infidels? They have no religion."
Another woman, Alan Yousif, slumped in despair outside her charred and devastated home in an apartment complex attached to the Armenian church. The car bomb had blown out all its windows and doors.
"They have destroyed us. What do they want from us?" she demanded, weeping hysterically. "Shall we leave Iraq? I think there will be no more place for the good people in this country."
In other developments, earlier Sunday a suicide bomber blew up his Toyota Land Cruiser outside a police station in Mosul, killing at least five people and wounding 53, officials said.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded near a vehicle belonging to the BBC, killing three passersby and wounding the driver.
Iraqi commandos freed Vladimir Damaa, a Lebanese construction firm owner who had been taken hostage at gunpoint Friday, but officials gave no information about a second abducted Lebanese man, Antoine Antoun, who was abducted separately from a dairy he runs in Baghdad.
There were conflicting reports surrounding the status of seven kidnapped drivers from India, Kenya and Egypt, whose captors had threatened to begin killing them this weekend if their Kuwaiti employer did not withdraw from the country.
A Kenyan official said Sunday that the three drivers from his country had been released, while a spokesman for the Kuwaiti transport company that employs the drivers said they were "in the final stages of negotiations" and Indian officials said the abductors had extended their deadline by two hours.
But an Iraqi tribal sheik who has been negotiating with the kidnappers said no agreement had been reached. Six more drivers, two Turks and four Jordanians, were also being held hostage.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki, and staff writer Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company