Easter attacks near churches rattle Christians as spike in Iraq violence continues

BAGHDAD – An improvised explosive device detonated near a church and a firefight broke out in front of another here Easter Sunday, further raising safety concerns for Iraq’s besieged Christian community, even as it remained unclear if worshipers or police were the primary targets of the attacks.

Iraqi police said the bomb earlier in the day outside a Baghdad church was situated to explode when an Iraqi police pick-up truck pulled away from Sacred Heart church, which it did after all parishioners had been cleared from the area following Easter Mass.

In a second attack not far away, four Iraqi police officers were wounded in a firefight with gunmen outside Mary the Virgin Catholic Church as congregants huddled inside.

“Thank God, no one was hurt, every follower member made it out safely,” said one church member who said Mass had begun when the gunfire erupted. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his personal safety.

At least two Iraqi policemen and two passersby suffered shrapnel wounds from the bomb outside Sacred Heart in Baghdad’s relatively upscale Karrada neighborhood. But a cameraman for Reuters reported seeing three injured officers and four injured civilians at a Baghdad hospital. Four Iraqi police officers suffered gunshot wounds in the firefight.

Late Sunday, a police spokesman said an explosion near an Iraqi Army checkpoint in northern Baghdad wounded seven, though witnesses said there were casualties.

The violence came despite a stifling security presence in the Iraqi capital Sunday, following a string of recent attacks against Iraqi police, army officers and government workers.

There were also mixed reports about whether Iraqi security forces suffered additional casualties Sunday. Iraqi government sources said as many as 10 police officers were killed across the country, but the Ministry of Interior’s Baghdad office reported no deaths.

Regardless, the blast sent another shockwave through Baghdad’s Christian community. Last fall, 51 members of another Catholic congregation and seven Iraqi security officers were killed when gunmen stormed Our Lady of Salvation Church during a Sunday Mass, and later detonated suicide vests as Iraqi police closed in during a rescue mission.

Around Christmas, a series of about 10 coordinated bombings in and around Baghdad targeted homes of Christians, killing at least three and wounding more than a dozen more.

On Saturday night, Iraq’s state-run television broadcast an evening Mass, allowing many Christians in the Iraqi capital to worship from home rather than venture out in public.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Baghdad and other southern portions of the country, including the Biblical area known as Babylon that is dominated by Shia Muslims.

Many have left Iraq or settled in and around the semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan region, home to the purported tombs of Jonah and the prophet Daniel.

Estimates of the number of Christians remaining in Iraq — which under Saddam Hussein numbered more than 1.5 million — now range between 650,000 and 850,000.

In one hopeful sign for Christians in Baghdad, a church leader at Our Lady of Salvation, which is now surrounded by concrete blast walls and razor-wire, said so many people arrived for services there Sunday that the church had to hold three services.

“It was more than before,” the official said, referring to the size of the congregation before last fall’s massacre.