It takes a certain amount of courage to attend a church in Iraq.
In the past 24 hours, bombs exploded outside of six churches in various Baghdad neighborhoods, killing at least four people, and wounding more than 30, according to a Reuters report from the Iraqi capital.
Sunday’s attacks were among the worst, in terms of the death toll. But many of these same churches have been bombed before. On Jan. 6, 2008 – also a Sunday – seven churches (four in Baghdad, three in Mosul) were hit in a similar round of bombings. Two years earlier, four churches (three in Baghdad, 1 in Kirkuk) were bombed – also on a Sunday in January.
The Assyrian (Christian) International News agency reports that 52 Assyrian churches have been bombed in Iraq between June 2004 and the end of 2008.
The latest attacks come in the wake of the US withdrawal of combat troops (on June 30) from most Iraqi cities.
"The terrorists are determined to hamper the political process in Iraq and not let Iraqis live in peace even after the withdrawal of foreign forces from the cities," Younadem Kana, a Christian lawmaker, told the Associated Press. "We demand that the Iraqi government take all necessary measures to protect Christians in Baghdad, and in all of Iraq."
One of the bombs Sunday was reportedly planted outside a Christian house of worship in the Dora district of Baghdad. As the Monitor’s Jane Arraf noted in an April story on the revival of Easter services for the first time in three years, Dora was once the scene of intense fighting between Shiites and Sunnis.
During the sectarian violence that erupted in 2006, Dora became a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In addition to the Sunni-Shiite violence, fliers told Christians that they would be killed if they openly worshipped, and demanded that they convert to Islam.
When Shiite militias stepped in to fight the Sunni extremists, the neighborhood became too dangerous for almost anyone to stay. "We used to have 3,000 Christian families here – now there are maybe 500," says Gorgis Orawawa, who recently brought his family back from northern Iraq.
Dora, as Jane noted, is one of several neighborhoods in the Iraqi capital where Christians are beginning to return home.
"Many of the Christians who fled the violence have been waiting in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Jordan, trying to decide whether it's safe enough to return. Thousands of others have left for the US, Europe, and Australia as refugees, joining relatives who have been there for years," says Jane, in a text message in response to the latest news, who is awaiting a flight in Amman, Jordan.
Jane adds, "Christians in Iraq have had an uneasy relationship with US forces, keeping their distance for fear of being targeted by insurgents. The US is seen as having a particular interest in protecting Christians. Insurgents are likely to hold these attacks up as proof that the US has failed."
"The Iraqi government," she notes, "has also gone to some lengths to be seen as protecting the Christian minority, including posting Interior Ministry guards outside of church services."
Some of these Iraqi communities can trace their roots back to the earliest days of Christianity. Today, Christians are estimated to make up less than 3 percent of the population.
These bombings are an apparent effort to dissuade Christian Iraqis living abroad from returning. Will it work?