Leading Muslim Clerics in Iraq Condemn Bombing of Churches
Top Muslim clerics and political leaders united Monday behind Iraq’s Christians, condemning the coordinated bomb attacks on five churches the day before as a dangerous escalation of the war and an assault on centuries of coexistence between Christians and Muslims here. Still, some Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of the nation’s 25 million people, said they feared that the attacks were a frightening signal of a rise of fundamentalist Islam – and that the day might come when they were no longer welcome in Iraq. At least 10 people were killed in the bombings, timed as Christians gathered in churches for Sunday evening Mass. “What else do they want?” asked a Christian woman, who gave her name as Um Khalid, 56, who runs a food shop down the street from an Assyrian Christian church in Baghdad, where twisted and blackened cars still stood from the explosion the night before. “They want us out of here.”
Iraqi officials lay blame for the attacks on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant with ties to Al Qaeda. But his group, Tawhid and Jihad, did not claim responsibility for the attacks, as has been its practice for others. The group did release two videotapes on Monday: one showing what appeared to be a Turkish hostage shot to death with three bullets to the head, the other saying it was releasing a Somali truck driver because his employer had agreed to halt operations in Iraq.
The Iraqi Christian community, concentrated around Baghdad and the Kurdish-controlled region in and around Mosul, is one of the oldest in the world, tracing its roots back 2,000 years. Most of its members are Assyrians, an independent Christian church, and Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize papal authority. Though subject to persecution throughout their history, they considered themselves generally well treated under the largely secular rule of Saddam Hussein, and some of them – notably the former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz – rose to positions of power. Their numbers have dwindled to about 800,000 now and falling, from about one million in 1991, around the time of the Persian Gulf war. The exodus has grown markedly since the fall of the Hussein government last year, with the crumbling of the generally secular atmosphere and the spread of lawlessness. A recent rise in attacks on retail businesses often owned by Christians and considered blasphemous by Islamists – liquor stores, beauty salons and shops selling Western music – has increased the worries.
On Monday, leaders from nearly every major Muslim group, Sunni and Shiite alike, spoke out forcefully against the bombings, in what amounted to a call for national unity against what they said were terrorists aimed at pulling the country apart. The most revered Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, described the bombings as “criminal actions” and called on the new Iraqi government to end such violence. “We confirm the necessity of respecting the right of Christians and other religious minorities and their right to live in their country, Iraq, in security and peace,” Ayatollah Sistani, who communicates publicly only on matters he regards as vital, said in a statement. There were similar words from the Muslim Scholars Association, a relatively moderate group of Sunni Muslims which nonetheless has ties to the insurgency here. Even Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric whose militia is thought to be responsible for many of the attacks on liquor stores, condemned the bombings.
That Christians are being targetted is hardly surprising, given that the insurgency is Islamist. The public denunciations by Muslim clerics is encouraging, since many of them refuse to condemn acts of terrorism, although it is not unheard of for these leaders to say one thing for public consumption and another thing in private.