Baghdad church bombings leave tiny Christian minority trembling
A spate of bombs targeting churches in Baghdad this week has Iraq’s minority Christian community trembling at the prospect of being the next victim of militants trying to reignite war.
Iraqi Christians, one of the country’s weakest ethnic or religious groups, have usually tried to steer clear of its many-sided conflict. For the most part, they manage.
While Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims killed each other by the dozen at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007, Christians were rarely targeted, although sometimes they were.
(Photo: A policeman at the site of a car bomb attack on a Baghdad church, 13 July 2009/Saad Shalash)
On Sunday, in apparently coordinated attacks, five bombs went off outside churches in Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 21, including a number of Christians.
Iraqi Christians or “Messihi”, as they are called by an Arabic word related to the Hebrew term “Messiah,” number around 750,000. That makes them a tiny minority in a Muslim nation of 28 million. They are mostly concentrated around Baghdad and the violent northern city of Mosul, which is still struggling to shake off al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups.
Historically, though, they have got on well with their Muslim compatriots. Under Ottoman rule, non-Islamic faiths were generally respected. More recently, Saddam Hussein used to draw attention to his Chaldean Christian Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz, currently doing time for assisting Saddam’s mass murders of Iraqi merchants, as an example of the Baath party’s religious tolerance.
But partly because they are small, Christians are an easy target. About 2,000 families, an estimated 12,000 people, fled Mosul after a campaign of threats and attacks on Christians there in October last year, but many have since returned.
(Photo: A man cleans up after a bomb attack on a Baghdad church, 13 July 2009/Thaier al-Sudani)
“Attacking Christians can have a big impact on public opinion, because they are a minority and the international media will take this news seriously. That’s what the extremists want,” William Warida, a Christian and chairman of a Baghdad human rights organisation told me. “And some extremists just don’t want the existence of Christians in this country at all.”
The country’s Christians fall into roughly two denominations, the majority Chaldeans under the authority of the Vatican and the minority Assyrians. “We are like one family, with two brothers: one is Chaldean, one is Assyrian. I have four grandsons: two are Assyrian and two Chladean,” says Assyrian Christian parliamentarian Yunadim Kanna. According to the Rome-based news agency Asianews.it, both Chaldean and Assyrian churches were attacked.
Many Iraqi Christians from both branches speak Syriac-Aramic, a semitic tongue related to old Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
Today, many of them live in exile in Jordan or Syria, scared off by the chaos unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
(Photo: Mourners grieve at funeral of bombing victim, 14 July 2009/Mohammed Ameen)
“After Sunday, the Christians that were thinking of coming back from outside, now maybe they will change their minds,” said Warida. “This was a message to them not to come back.”
The Vatican’s procurator for Chaldean Catholics, Chorbishop Philip Najeem, gave the same analysis in an interview with Vatican Radio.