Iraqis decry attacks on Christians

A rare display of violence against Christians here may signal that Sunni insurgents are broadening their effort to destabilize Iraq and stir up differences between Islam and other faiths.

Bombing attacks against churches in Baghdad and Mosul Sunday night killed at least 11 and injured dozens more. The explosions were a strong show of force and coordination by jihadi elements that the interim government has called the biggest threat to Iraq's stability.

Many Iraqis reject these wedge efforts and express frustration with civilian attacks. But there are few signs that terrorist cells have been disrupted. In fact, as the Iraqi government shores up security at police stations and other high-visibility locations, insurgents are increasingly attacking vulnerable targets, like churches and truck drivers.

After graphic video of a Turkish hostage being killed by militants was posted on the Internet, the Turkish truckers' association announced Monday that it will no longer transport goods bound for US forces in Iraq, according to the Associated Press.

The detritus of calamity is evident outside the St. Peter and Paul Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad's Al Doura district.

The Rev. Faris Toma, pastor of St. Peter and Paul, spent the night comforting bereaved parishioners. Ten churchgoers were killed Sunday evening by a remote-control car bomb that went off just as church members headed out to the parking lot.

"Why do they kill all the Iraqi people?" he asks in exasperation. "Why don't they kill the Americans? They are the occupiers. We are innocent."

Attacks against Iraqi Christians have been rare up until now. While Christians have been targeted by kidnap-for-ransom gangs, and Christian-owned liquor stores have been destroyed by Shiite militias, these attacks were probably not sectarian.

The vast majority of Iraqis are comfortable with the country's Christian minority. Representatives of both Moqtada al-Sadr's militant Shiite group and Sunni political organizations condemned the attacks. "This is a cowardly act,'' Sadr spokesman Abdul Hadi al-Daraji told Al Jazeera television.

Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also gave a rare response, calling the church bombings a "hideous crime."

Analysts say that Sunni militants with an ideology similar to Al Qaeda's were almost certainly behind the church bombings. Al Qaeda-linked groups, intolerant not just of Christians but of Muslim sects that don't share their views, have targeted churches in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

While Iraq has armed Shiite groups that have participated in attacks on US forces and been involved in the assassinations of political opponents, they haven't been known to use terrorist attacks on civilian targets.

Iraqi officials say they believe the attack was carried out by a cell connected to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with Al Qaeda ties who has taken responsibility for a number of car-bombings inside Iraq.

Since the apparent immediate aim of the Zarqawi group and others that share its methods is to embarrass the US-installed interim government, the actual nature of the target is less important to them than simply carrying out successful attacks.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Christian community largely stayed out of the major conflicts and divisions in Iraqi politics. Though some Christians were elevated to senior positions - Tariq Aziz, a Christian, was a longtime foreign minister and one of Mr. Hussein's closest allies - most quietly went about their lives as small businessmen and shopkeepers.

Since the fall of Hussein, and amid a rise in militant Islamic movements, Christian leaders have worried that they would be targeted.

At St. Peter and Paul church, witnesses are busy putting their house of God back in order.

But while church members are clinging to one another, and to sympathetic Muslims and others in the surrounding community, they recognize that their fears may take a long time to overcome.

Bashar Badri, a guard and a church member, knew some of the church members who died in the blast. One of his friends, Firas Benjamin, and his fiancée, were planning to get married at this church on Thursday. Both were burned to death in their car.

But while this attack has shaken many church members, he says Iraqi Christians will not be intimidated.

"I think the people of this community will not leave Iraq, they will not leave the church," says Mr. Shamon. "We have been through many wars, so I think we can carry on our lives."

At the Armenian Catholic Church in the prosperous Tahrir Square neighborhood, witnesses heard a smaller series of blasts, which brought them outside for a larger explosion. It's a common tactic, police say, to maximize the number of casualties.

The tactic failed. A massive concrete wall, forming a grotto, served as a bunker to protect the curious parishioners.

Across the street, a brick wall has collapsed into a pile of rubble. But it was strong enough to protect Samir Matti's sister and her two children, who had been sitting in the front room of their home, watching television, when the car bomb exploded just 15 feet away.

Mr. Matti says he has no confidence that either the Iraqi government or the US can stop insurgents who use car bombs. "The enemy, he's a hidden person," says Matti. "He could be in that car, or in this car. I don't know how you can find him."

"Islamic fundamentalists did this, probably," says Adel Mansour, a neighbor who attends a Syrian Catholic church elsewhere. "They have support, money, they are organized, and they did this for political reasons. They want people to turn against the local government."

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