Religious cleansing’ in Iraq

title_static21.gifACN News, Wednesday, 9th January 2008 – IRAQ
‘By John Pontifex
NEW fears of a fresh campaign to flush out Christianity from key parts of Iraq have been sparked by the shock attack on churches in leading cities.

Concerns about a new “religious-cleansing” drive were raised by sources close to the Church reeling from Sunday’s (6th January) co-ordinated bomb-blasts on at least six church buildings in Mosul and Baghdad.

In their contacts with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the Iraqi Church sources stressed that, with only one person injured, the attacks were clearly not intended to kill or cause damage but that they were still “very worrying”.

The sources were referring to reports that the bombs were placed well away from church buildings and were released after people had left following the day’s Sunday service.

However, the Church figures highlighted the attacks’ timing – which fell on Christmas Eve in many Orthodox Church communities and Epiphany for Catholics. Many baptisms are held on this feast day.

The sources said that the attacks’ underlying objective was to scare more Christians into fleeing the region and discourage others who were considering returning home from their place of exile either abroad or in the north, where it is relatively safe.

The Church sources, who cannot be named for security reasons, said that as part of the increasing division of the country along sectarian lines, Sunni and Shia Muslim extremists wanted to expel Christians from their respective spheres of control.

There are no accurate figures for Iraq’s Christian population but best estimates claim that more than half of the 1.2 million Christians in the country in early 2003 have now fled and that the vast majority in Baghdad have now escaped.

The Christians’ declining numbers as well as a continuing break-down of law and order in key parts of the country, were two key reasons given by the Church sources to explain the targeting of Christians who, they said, had few guards and other security measures in place.

Meanwhile, speaking from one of the cities that were targeted, a leading bishop told ACN of the people’s shock, especially coming after at least two months of relative calm.

He said: “People had become so optimistic but now they have realised that things are not so clear.

He added: “The people were shocked of course. They were very calm and took it very well.”

The bishop said: “It seems that the people changed their minds and decided not to kill anybody. Thank God for that.”

The bishop said that the bombings would discourage Christians from returning to Baghdad and Mosul and encourage yet more emigration of faithful, which he said was continuing even before the attacks.

He spoke of how in the wake of the attacks, he and other leading clergy had visited Christians to boost morale.

“The best thing we can do is to be with the people,” he said. “I have been with many families in the last few days – just to try and encourage them.”

He called on Christians in the West to pray for the Church in Iraq. “We need the consolation of your prayers,” he said. “Through your prayers, we can draw strength from one another.”

The bishop stressed the similarity between Sunday’s attacks and those taking place in the last few years, starting in August 2004, when again churches in Mosul and Baghdad were attacked.

Aid to the Church in Need is giving key support to Iraq, especially helping the tens of thousands now in Syria, around the capital Damascus, Turkey, Jordan and in northern Iraq.

Marie-Ange Siebrecht, Head of ACN Projects in Iraq, said: “In most of the news on Iraq, we never hear about the Christians. Iraqi Christians belong to Iraq. They are part of the community, living side-by-side with people of a different faith.

“It would be a disaster if the Christians were forced to be segregated and cut off from those with whom they have made their home for so long.”

Editor’s Notes:

Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.

Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 145 countries throughout the world.

The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 45 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.

For more information, please contact the Australian office of ACN on (02) 9679-1929. e-mail: or write to Aid to the Church in Need PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148.