BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Assyrian Christian compound in Baghdad came under mortar attack yesterday, just over a week after bombers killed up to 15 Christians, news reports and church officials said.
Assyrian leaders said the targeted compound in the Iraqi capital’s Zayuna district houses a clinic, a women’s center and a computer center. It also provides free telephone calls to those in need and supports humanitarian relief activities in addition to serving as the nerve center for Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
There was no word of casualties, but the violence was expected to increase concern among Iraqi Christians. Hundreds and possible thousands of Christians have reportedly fled to countries such as Jordan and Syria following attacks against five Assyrian churches on Sunday, Aug. 1 in Baghdad and Mosul.
Those who stayed behind, including believers of Baghdad’s Chaldean Church of St. Peter and St. Paul where most Christians died, have prayed for those responsible for what was the largest terrorist attack against Christians since the 15-month-old insurgency began.
“We cannot understand why or how they could do something like this,” Father Faris Toma told the British daily The Daily Telegraph last week. “All we can do is ask God to give them forgiveness and grant us peace.”
In addition, the well informed Internet website Assyrianchristians.com reported on other recent incidents, including the killings of two Christian children, 6 and 16, in their Baghdad home.
Monday’s attack against the Assyrian compound further confirmed that “the anti-democratic forces in Iraq are trying to start sectarian ‘warfare,'” the community said in a statement released via the Internet.
Yet, “by attacking the various Assyrian Christian offices … they have failed to generate support from the Iraqi public who have been sympathetic to the plight of the Christians. This latest savage attack as the previous ones will fail because the Iraqi people understand what is happening,” an official said.
The mainly Assyrian Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq, and experts say many were forcibly converted to the Muslim religion throughout the centuries and especially under the last years of the Saddam Hussein regime.
While some church officials claim there are around 2.5 million Assyrian Christians still in Iraq, most estimates suggest the real figure may be roughly 750,000, due to persecution and massive migration.
“With the rise of radical Muslim clerics the situation has changed dramatically and there has been an exodus of these once large communities,” said Ken Joseph, a spokesman for the Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
A hitherto unknown group, the “Planning and Follow-up Committee in Iraq,” claimed responsibility for the attacks. It said: “Your mujahedeen brothers dealt painful blows to the dens of the Crusaders, the dens of evil, corruption, vice and Christianization,” the Daily Telegraph reported.
However, Joseph said he was encouraged that the “one Assyrian Christian minister” in the government, Pascale Warda, enjoys “broad support” within the Cabinet “for her courage and outspoken views supporting a strong and independent Iraq.”
In addition, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, has denounced the church bombings as “hideous crimes.” Iraq’s interim government blamed them on foreign Islamist militants led by the al-Qaida-linked terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, news reports said.
Yet at least one Assyrian Christian reportedly said Christians are showing defiance.
“We were afraid before, we are no longer so,” the unidentified woman was quoted as saying in an Internet message from the Assyrian community. “I will wear my cross proudly. Nobody is going to force me, my family or our people from our country. The more they try the stronger we are becoming.” she added.
Journalist Stefan J. Bos has traveled extensively to cover wars and revolutions and received the Annual Press Award of Merit from the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for his coverage about foreign-policy affairs including Hungary’s relationship with NATO and the European Union.