Iraqi Christians in Baghdad are becoming increasingly anxious after a series of targeted attacks on them by al-Qaida affiliated groups.
The coordinated acts of terrorism, which killed three and left 27 injured, began yesterday evening when three Christian homes were bombed in the Iraqi capital. The violence continued Wednesday morning with mortar bombs in another two largely Christian neighborhoods in the southern part of the city.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a group associated with al-Qaida, has claimed responsibility for the bombings.
They follow what Pope Benedict XVI described as a “ferocious” act of terrorism on Oct. 31 when at least 58 Iraqis were killed and 78 wounded in the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Baghdad.
According to the Iraqi Christian news service Ankawa, the terrorists who perpetrated Wednesday’s attacks targeted one family after seeing funeral signs still hanging outside their home in respect of those killed a week earlier. Some Church leaders are openly criticizing the government for failing to provide adequate protection for Christians.
Hours before Wednesday’s attacks, a senior Vatican official stressed that violence against Christian minorities in the Middle East are crimes that must be opposed. Addressing the general assembly of Interpol in Doha, Qatar, Archbishop Carlo Marina Vigano described the Oct. 31 atrocity as an act of “unheard-of ferocity against defenceless people joined in prayer.”
He also noted that Muslims are also victims of these “atrocious” attacks. “Terrorists committing the violence lack respect not only for human dignity but even for those of their own religion,” he said.
The increase in violence is particularly upsetting for the Vatican and the Catholic Church as it comes just weeks after a major synod of bishops in Rome on the Middle East which aimed at building up the hopes and resolve among the region’s Christian population.
Of particular concern to the Church is the emigration of Christians from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, many of whom are leaving because of the violence and insecurity instigated by Islamic extremists.
Jesuit priest Philippe Luisier, who teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome — an institution devoted to the study of Catholic churches in the Middle East — said the violence has two goals: “to discourage the Christian presence in Iraq and to awaken in the Western world equally violent reactions.”
“We must resist this double temptation,” he said, adding that there must be justice if peace is to be achieved in the country.
Until these latest attacks, Christians had been starting to return to Baghdad, especially to the Dora district which is known as the “Vatican of Iraq” because of its large number of Catholic churches and religious houses.
But many Church leaders in Iraq now appear resigned to believing that this recent violence will prompt a further exodus of Christians from the Iraqi capital. According to figures given to Aid to the Church in Need, a Christian charity, in 2003 the number of Christian families living in the Iraqi capital was 40,000; now it is barely 50.
One Syrian Orthodox bishop based in London this week even called on Iraqi Christians to leave the country because it was so dangerous, but his comments were rejected by at least one priest in Baghdad who said that although they were afraid, they were not desperate.
The consequences of an Iraq devoid of Christians could have grave consequences for the region and the world, according to Catholic experts on the Middle East. The country is home to some of the earliest Christian settlements and has long been known as the “cradle of civilization.”
At last month’s Vatican synod, Greek-Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Antioch warned that if the region is emptied of Christians, it would herald “a new clash of cultures, of civilisations and even of religions, a destructive clash between the Muslim Arab East and the Christian West.”
This was also the overriding concern of John Paul II and one of the main reasons why he so forcefully opposed the Iraq War in 2003.
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