BAGHDAD – A series of coordinated explosions rocked five churches across Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul on Sunday, killing at least two people and wounding about 40 others in the first attacks directed at the country’s Christian minority in a violent 15-month insurgency.
Two explosions just minutes apart shook separate Baghdad churches in a largely Christian neighborhood during Sunday evening services, followed shortly by two more explosions at churches in other areas of the capital. A car bomb and grenade attack hit a church in Mosul at roughly the same time, Iraqi officials said.
Christians number some 750,000, or 3 percent of Iraq’s population of 24 million people, and many were already concerned about the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism, so long repressed under Saddam Hussein. A majority of the Christians are Chaldean Roman Catholic, the rest Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian. Most live in Baghdad and its outskirts and some dwell farther to the north.
Islamic radicals have warned Christians running liquor stores to shut down their businesses and have turned their sights on fashion stores and beauty salons. The increasing attention on this minority community has many within looking for a way out. Many are in neighboring Jordan and Syria waiting for the security situation to settle, while others have applied to leave the country.
“What are the Muslims doing? Does this mean that they want us out?” asked Brother Louis, a deacon at the Our Lady of Salvation, as he cried outside the Assyrian Catholic church. “Those people who commit these awful criminal acts have nothing to do with God.”
The bombings on Sunday came four days after an attack outside a police recruiting center in Baquba, north of Baghdad, killed 70 people. The police are frequently targeted by militants who regarded them as collaborators with U.S. forces.
The attacks on Sunday followed another night of clashes between U.S. forces and guerrillas in the rebellious city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, in which at least 10 Iraqis died and 35 were wounded, a doctor at the main hospital said.
Meanwhile, there were conflicting reports over the fate of three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian taken hostage in Iraq last month.
In Nairobi, Foreign Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere of Kenya had told a news conference that guerrillas had released the seven hostages. But the Kuwaiti company employing the men – and an Iraqi mediator who has been negotiating their release – said they were still in captivity.
Scores of hostages from two dozen countries have been seized by kidnappers in the last four months.
On Saturday, militants led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant, said they had kidnapped two Turkish truck drivers and would behead them in 48 hours unless their Turkish employer quit the country.
Iraqi commandos freed a Lebanese hostage on Sunday, a Lebanese Foreign Ministry source said, but there was no word on a fellow countryman who was taken with a Syrian driver on Friday.
U.S. military officials in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad, where the first two churches were bombed, said Sunday that they found a third bomb in front another church that had not exploded. Karada is home to many of the city’s Christians and many of its churches.
“We were in the Mass and suddenly we heard a big boom, and I couldn’t feel my body anymore, I didn’t feel anything,” said Marwan Saqiq, who was covered in blood. “I saw people taking me out with the wood and glass shattered everywhere.”
U.S. military officials said at least one and possibly both of the blasts appeared to have come from booby trapped cars.
The explosions in Baghdad killed one person and injured 50 to 55 people, medical officials said. The blasts in Mosul killed one person and injured 11 others, said Major Fawaz Fanaan of the police.
In Mosul, about 220 miles north of Baghdad, a car bomb blew up next to a Catholic church while worshipers were coming out of Mass, said Major Raed Abdel Basit of the police. Several rocket-propelled grenades were also launched at the church, a U.S. military spokesman said.
The bomb, inside a white Toyota, blew up about 7 p.m. just yards from the church, said Ghaleb Wadeea, 50-year-old engineer who lives next door. Debris from the car were scattered about the site, with some hanging off a nearby electricity pylon. A bridge in Mosul was also hit, the military spokesman said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said a total of four churches were hit in Baghdad, two in Karada, one in the Dora neighborhood and one in New Baghdad.
At the site of the two blasts in Karada, Iraqi police and National Guard cordoned off the area. Firefighters and emergency workers were battling fires and helping the wounded.
The first blast in Baghdad hit outside an Armenian church just 15 minutes into the evening service, the witnesses said.
The second blast hit the Assyrian Catholic church about 500 yards away.
Stunned Iraqis ran away from the scene, holding their bleeding heads in their hands.
“I saw injured women and children and men, the church’s glass shattered everywhere. There’s glass all over the floor,” said Juliette Agob, who was inside the Armenian church during the first explosion.
The back wall of the Catholic church, where a bomb had been placed, was badly damaged, with bricks scattered about, revealing the graves from a cemetery behind the building. The bomb left a hole nine feet wide in the ground.
Three cars were in flames in front of the Armenian Church, colored glass was scattered across the ground.
Four unexploded artillery shells were still visible inside the booby-trapped car.
Huge plumes of black smoke poured into the evening sky over the city and U.S. helicopter gunships circled above. Firefighters and residents struggled with hoses to put out the flames, which leapt from the front of a tan colored church.
The Vatican condemned the blasts, saying they appeared to be an effort to further heighten tensions. “It is terrible and worrying because it is the first time that Christian churches are being targeted in Iraq,” said the Reverend Ciro Benedettini, a spokesman. “It is even more worrying because the Catholic Church has always been in the front line in the commitment for peace and solidarity towards all.”