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Iraq: Insurgents Target Five Christian Churches

Prague, 2 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi bombers have hit five Christian churches in the country, killing at least 11 people. Iraqi officials say the well-coordinated attacks, timed to coincide with evening services on Sunday night, aim at further dividing Iraqis along community lines.

"It was [a] very bad, very horrible situation, really very horrible moment. We tried to do everything to save lives but we still lost many and we have many injured, many of them are in very serious condition. We got news last night that one of them has died already."

That is Bashar Muntiborda, the priest of one of the five Christian churches bombed in Iraq on Sunday as worshippers were crowded inside for evening services.

Muntiborda is a parish priest for an Assyrian church in Baghdad. The bombers struck his church as well as those belonging to the other two major Christian denominations in Iraq -- the Armenian and Chaldean.

All together, four houses of worship in Baghdad and one in the northern city of Mosul were attacked. Church members have said up to 15 people were killed in the blasts. U.S. military officials put the death toll at 10.

Iraqi interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib today condemned the coordinated attacks as a new assault by insurgents on innocent civilians: "This is a war against Iraqis, this is a war against Iraq, and we are going to finish them."

A leading Assyrian Christian community group today said it saw the attack as aimed at destabilizing the country and not being religiously motivated.

Shmael N. Benjamin, an official of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, spoke to RFE/RL stringer Sami Alkhoja in Baghdad: "We exclude that the aim behind yesterday's bombing, these criminal acts, could have been religious, meaning a Muslim targeting a Christian, but what we see is targeting of the general security situation in Iraq."

Benjamin also said the attack took his community by surprise: "The authorities asked protection to be provided to the churches, but religious men refused this offer because during the past period, there was no threat. There was talk of an attack but it was rejected by the Iraqis and was not taken seriously. The church always felt safe from this danger."

The attack is the first major bombing campaign against Christians since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by U.S. forces last year.

National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said the campaign "bears the blueprint" of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant considered to be an Al-Qaeda associate.

Al-Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for many past bombings, is also suspected of plotting to set Iraq's Shi'a and Sunni Muslims against each other by bombing Shi'a holy shrines.

U.S. officials said earlier this year they intercepted a letter from al-Zarqawi addressed to Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. The letter outlined plans to stir up communal violence as one way to make Iraq increasingly difficult for U.S.-led forces to secure.

The country's population of Christians is believed to number about 800,000 -- or some 3 percent of the total Iraqi population.

Iraq's Christians were free to worship under the Hussein regime. One member of the community -- former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz -- was among the most powerful men in Hussein's government.

But some Christian leaders now say they fear religious tolerance could decline in post-Hussein Iraq because some Muslims may associate them with the U.S.-led coalition forces -- who mostly come from Christian nations.

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