A wave of bombings and mortar attacks struck Christian areas across Baghdad Wednesday, sending families fleeing their homes a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged the government would protect them.
Interior Ministry officials said improvised bombs and a car bomb were detonated near the homes of Christians in at least seven neighborhoods in Baghdad late Tuesday and early Wednesday, killing at least four people and wounding more than 16.
The bombings, which came 10 days after more than 50 Christians were killed by Al Qaeda-linked gunmen who stormed a church during Sunday mass, have sown panic in the close-knit community.
Some fled their homes to seek refuge at the very church which was attacked on Oct 31.
“We were so afraid – we left without taking anything,” says Umm Danny, surrounded by her three children, a niece, and a nephew in the church hall of Our Lady of Salvation in central Baghdad. She said they hear explosions so often in their south Baghdad neighborhood of Dora they didn’t think anything of it until one detonated on their block near the home of a particularly devout Christian family.
“We went barefoot onto the roof and climbed onto our Muslim neighbor’s house,” she says. “They helped us and told us to stay with them but we were afraid.” Umm Danny, who did not want her full name used, said the neighbors cried when they left.
“I think this is only a warning,” says another Christian planning to leave for the Kurdish capital of Erbil. “We are expecting anything at anytime. It seems as if they can do anything without anyone stopping them.”
Government discourages Christian exodus
Mr. Maliki on Tuesday met with senior church leaders, telling them in a meeting aired on state-run television that his government would protect Christians.
He thanked France for sending a hospital plane to take more than 30 of the wounded for treatment but said it "must not be an incentive to emigrate." The Iraqi government has asked the Vatican and the West not to encourage Christians to leave Iraq.
Almost half of the approximately 800,000 Christians in Iraq before the war are believed to have fled – many given refugee status in the West.
The assault on the church by a team of gunmen who passed through checkpoints with explosives along with more than 20 bombs in Shiite areas two days later have shaken faith in the government’s ability to protect the population.
Iraqis blame government for weak security
More than eight months after Iraqis voted in national elections, Maliki is struggling to form a governing coalition. Iraq’s parliament has been ordered back to work on Thursday but it appears unlikely they will elect a speaker.
“I blame the government for all these attacks. It’s a very weak government and it can’t protect us,” says Moshi Zeya Moshi, shouting in pain as he talked on the phone. He was wounded in the thigh when a bomb placed under his neighbor’s car exploded in their Senaa Street neighborhood on Wednesday morning. Mr. Moshi, who works as a guard, said he had gone out after the first explosion to check on his elderly neighbor when the bomb exploded.
The "Islamic State in Iraq," a group linked to Al Qaeda, declared responsibility for the Oct. 31 attack and followed with a warning that it would continue to kill Christians.
Kurdish leader: Our doors are open
The church attack followed by the bombings in neighborhoods has left many terrified that the next step will be gunmen breaking into their homes. In the northern city of Mosul, attacks on Christians became progressively more targeted until victims were abducted or killed in their homes and shops. The killings there sparked an exodus of more than 1,000 families north to relative safety of the Kurdish territories.
Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih said he had spoken with the Chaldean patriarch to tell him the Kurdish regional government would give the fleeing families refuge.
“It is our duty. It is the least we can do in this hour of crisis. Our doors are open – they can come, they can work,” Mr. Salih told the Monitor. "There is no notion of closing the border,” he said, responding to rumors sweeping the Christian community.
Church leaders uncertain how to advise followers
The attacks have left angry church officials in a quandary over what to tell a community they have traditionally encouraged not to leave.
“The security authorities promised to protect us, but we don’t know what kind of procedures they’ve put in place,” Syrian Archbishop Matti Shaba Matoka, one of the small group of clerics who met Maliki, told the Monitor.
Next door at Our Lady of Salvation, there appeared to be minimal security outside the church where the doors were hanging on their hinges and there were bullet holes in the walls.
“Our bishops cannot do anything,” said one Christian man, who said he blamed the political vacuum for the violence.
Christian member of parliament Ynadim Kennah said the bombings pointed out the short-comings of the government security institutions and the chaos of the political vacuum.
“They are an evidence of the failure of the intelligence agencies," he asked. "What can the forces do in the streets if they don’t have intelligence information?”