Car bombs exploded outside five Christian churches in two Iraqi cities during Sunday evening services in coordinated attacks that sent terrified and bleeding worshipers fleeing into the streets as stained-glass windows shattered and flames engulfed the buildings.
Eleven people were killed and 47 injured in the assaults, the first such large-scale violence against minority Christians, who have long coexisted peacefully with Iraqi Muslims.
The blasts struck four churches in Baghdad and one in the northern city of Mosul within 30 minutes as night fell. Black smoke billowed into the air over the darkening capital. Ambulances ferried victims to hospitals and firefighters hosed flaming buildings and cars, while police fired into the air and U.S. troops tried to maintain order as people milled angrily in the affected neighborhoods.
In a statement Monday, the U.S. military said 10 people were killed and 40 injured in the Baghdad bombings.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, condemned the bombings, saying, "It is terrible and worrying because it is the first time that Christian churches are being targeted in Iraq." He told the Reuters news agency that the blasts seemed to be an "attempt to heighten tensions by trying to affect all social groups, including churches."
"We were lining up for communion, the holiest moment in the Mass. Suddenly the explosion happened, and glass rained down from the windows," said a weeping, middle-aged woman at the bedside of her wounded mother in Ibn-Nafees Hospital. "Those who did this are without religion," added the woman, who did not want to give her name. "This is not Muslims. Muslims don't do this to their brothers."
Witnesses and victims from three of the bombed churches in Baghdad expressed similar sentiments, blaming the attacks on extremists seeking to sow division between Christians and majority Muslims.
"This is God's house. Those who did this may think they will go to heaven, but they will go to hell," said Reemon Merghi, 24, a Christian who witnessed the blast at an Armenian church from his apartment nearby. "Maybe they think they are going to make Muslims and Christians fight each other, but we are like one family living in one house."
The first bomb in Baghdad exploded about 6:30 p.m. outside an Armenian Catholic church in the Karrada district, shortly after evening Mass had begun. As people poured outside in panic and police and rescue crews raced to the scene, a second blast occurred about 20 minutes later outside an Assyrian Catholic church, Lady of Salvation, about a half-mile away.
Minutes later, two more bombs exploded next to a Chaldean Christian church in the Doura neighborhood in southwest Baghdad and outside a fourth church, Father Ilyas, in the New Baghdad district.
Iraqi police and the U.S. military said all the blasts appeared to have come from booby-trapped cars and were not suicide bombs.
Police found another bomb at a fifth church in Baghdad and diffused it, the U.S. military said.
In Mosul, about 220 miles north of the capital, officials said a car bomb exploded next to the Mar Polis Church, a Catholic congregation, as worshipers were leaving evening Mass. The blast damaged the building and five cars. The officials said rocket-propelled grenades were also fired at the church. The U.S. military reported that one person was killed and seven injured in the attack.
Before Sunday's bombings, there had been a number of bomb attacks against Christian-owned shops that sell alcohol in Baghdad and other cities, but none against Christian places of worship. In January, a minibus carrying a group of Iraqi Christian women to work at a U.S. military base west of Baghdad was followed and attacked by gunmen, who killed several of the passengers.
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.