Iraqi Christians struggle to stay

Insurgents bombed five Baghdad churches Saturday. A growing number of Christians are leaving Iraq.

Inside the gutted church, with the acrid scent of burning still thick and the crunch of charcoal under foot, Iraqi Christians baptized Savio Mar Georgis.

It was a moment of rebirth Sunday for an embattled congregation that saw its Roman Catholic church struck with explosives Saturday - one of five Baghdad churches damaged in predawn attacks.

But Sunday, water was poured from a tin kettle into a large plastic bowl, a makeshift baptismal font for a month-old boy. Gentle clapping turned into a full-throated cheer as the significance of the event sank in.

"I am very happy today," says Nabil Jamil, the church caretaker and father of Savio, who helped his wife and three other children escape the flames.

"This fire and this bombing is death," says Mr. Jamil. "But this baptism is new life for this church, for Christians, Muslims, and everyone in Iraq."

Before communion - the chalice and bowl blessed on a blackened altar - the Rev. Mansur al-Mokalisy told 40 or so faithful, some in tears, not to be shaken by the latest violence aimed at Iraq's tiny and shrinking Christian minority.

"We should be strong in our hearts and work together, united," the priest said. "Thanks to our Muslim neighbors, who helped us. Let God protect our country, and let peace live in our hearts."

That is a tough message today in Iraq, where every religious and ethnic group that makes up Iraq's complex mosaic has been targeted by suicide bombs, assassinations, and kidnappings.

US forces and the Iraqi interim government vow to crush the insurgency before elections in late January. Military attention is now focused on Fallujah, which US and Iraqi officials say is a staging ground for insurgents planning attacks and kidnappings. Peace talks broke down over the weekend.

US air and ground force attacks have since intensified, apparently preparing the ground for a future invasion of the city, where the US suspects Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of leading foreign fighters.

British media also reported a controversial US request to shift some British troops from the southern city of Basra to just south of Baghdad, so that US units there can enter any Fallujah offensive.

In Baghdad, the church attacks reminded Christians - just 3 percent of the population, with no political weight - of their increasing vulnerability.

"They want to spark a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, and target Christians so they will leave Iraq," says Wisam Ayoubi, an Assyrian Christian professor who stood amid the cinders the church Saturday. [Editor's note: Our original story identified Prof. Wisam Ayoubi as a Syrian Christian. He is actually an Assyrian Christian.]

"You can't feel free. And it's not just Christians - a lot of people are not attending classes," says Professor Ayoubi, who graduated from New York University in the early 1980s. "I don't feel safe in church. Before, I used to go every Sunday. Now I don't. I have two kids, and don't want them to be hurt."

"Nobody could get used to this," says Ayoubi, "Everywhere there was screaming [after the blast]. We went to the roof, saw the flame, and I could feel the heat from the fire on my face. Imagine if this blast happened during mass."

That's what happened Aug. 1, when a string of attacks hit churches during services, killing 11. Christian shopkeepers selling alcohol have also been targeted.

The trickle of Christians who have left Iraq - and its Christian history that dates back to the fabled Garden of Eden- - have turned into a stream.

"People are frightened. We are an easy target," says The Rev. Yousif Thomas Mirkis, a priest and theology professor. "I compare our community to pigeons. You do that" - he claps - "and they all fly."

Fr. Thomas says he tells those seeking advice to stay in Iraq, since, by his count, the community accounts for 20 percent of Iraq's doctors, and an even larger slice of professions like engineers and professors.

"We don't want our people to leave," he says . "All Iraqis are my brothers, killers and victims. If I leave, it will not solve the problem. What about the Muslims? They are not our enemies."

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical group believed to have some insurgent ties, condemned the church attacks. "Islam doesn't support the ongoing terrorism," said member Sheik Abdul Sattar Abdul-Jabbar.

Such words did little to calm the churchgoers. Caretaker Jamil had received warning of a threat from US troops less than 12 hours before the blast. That convinced several in the area that the US was responsible.

"Why didn't they put someone here to protect us?" asked one Christian neighbor. "They are making all this chaos, [as an excuse] to stay in Iraq."

She returned last week after three months in the Netherlands. The violence changed her mind about staying. "Our great-great-grandfathers lived in Iraq, and I never saw a better country," says the woman, whose restaurant was bombed last year. "I'm afraid of all these attacks. This is mass destruction."

"I think the Americans made this operation [to attack churches]" says Nadwa George, a Christian neighbor. "It could not be an Iraqi - never, never."

"Under the previous regime, we were protected, really. Now with the US, we are not," says Audet Abdal, who lives next door. "My cousin was kidnapped a week ago, and released for $35,000."

"We can't go outside wearing any cross anymore," she says. "Since the US came, [insurgents] think they are punishing America [by hitting Christians], because Americans are Christians."

"If they kill me, or my son, what's the benefit of [staying in] my country?" asks Ms. Abdal.

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