Iraqi priests defy bombers in half-empty churches

Iraqi priests defy bombers in half-empty churches

By Matthew Green

BAGHDAD, Aug 8 (Reuters) – Priests thundered defiance on Sunday at
attackers who bombed Iraqi churches a week ago, but fears of more
strikes ensured they were preaching to half-empty pews.

Blasts at five churches in Iraq killed 11 people during evening
prayers last Sunday — inspiring dread among some of Iraq’s 800,000
Christians and invigorating the faith of others.

“We have paid the price of love in Iraq with our blood,” Catholic
Archbishop Antoine Atamian said at Baghdad’s Armenian church, where
the scorched wreckage of a car tipped on its side by one of the blasts
still lay in the street.

“We’re not worried about physical death, we fear the death of the
principles of love and compassion that make up the soul of Iraq,” said
Atamian, who represents the Armenian denomination, one of several
Christian communities in Iraq.

Above him, shards of stained glass dangled from a high window
shattered by the explosion — although the solemn figure of an
Armenian saint in the panel had been spared destruction.

Worshippers at the church said about a third of the usual 600 people
attended mass on Sunday, a major break with tradition for Iraqi
Christians who pride themselves on a much stauncher level of devotion
than in many European countries.

Leaving the church, built with solid arches and an imposing bell
tower, locals said nowhere was safe in Baghdad, where the sound of
mortars and rockets starts soon after sundown most days.

“What can you do?” shrugged May Yousif, 46, who designed the stained
glass damaged in the blast. “At home all night we hear bombing, it’s
the same everywhere.”

Dwarfed by a mainly Muslim population of 25 million, Iraq’s Christians
have been gripped by anxiety since last year’s U.S.-led invasion
toppled Saddam Hussein, who had largely left them free to worship as
they pleased.

Last week’s blasts crushed any hope Christians had of avoiding the
kind of attacks on mosques staged in the past year in apparent
attempts to stir sectarian strife among Muslims.


Divided into various close-knit denominations — such as Armenians,
Assyrians and Chaldeans — many members of the various Christian
communities share a growing sense that they might be targeted for
their religion.

At the Syrian Catholic Church, where workmen gathered to repair damage
caused by another car bomb blast, only about 70 of the usual
1,000-strong congregation made it to a makeshift mass held on Sunday
in a nearby hall.

“They won’t come as they used to before,” said Reverend Raphael
Kutaimi, one of the senior clergy. “They wanted to kill people in the
church, of course this will affect our members.”

Priests have urged Christians to resist the temptation to quit Iraq to
join their brethren in countries such as neighbouring Syria, fearing
an exodus of hundreds of their co-religionists will sap the life force
of their community.

“We will not flee Iraq, our blood was mingled with the blood of Iraq’s
martyrs,” said Peter Haddad, at the church of Mary in Baghdad, where a
good deal of bare wood from pews was visible during his
thinly-attended service.

“We, Muslims and Christians, are united in our efforts and hearts in
this country and over this land,” he said.

For Christians like Leon Terzian, 72, an architect who designed the
Armenian church to echo temples of pre-Christian fire-worshippers, the
attacks simply reinforced his faith.

“After each difficulty, a person goes to God and prays,” he said,
speaking near an altar adorned with vases of red roses. “Christians
never ask for revenge, just for forgiveness.”

(Additional reporting by Omar Anwar and Seif Fuad)

08/08/04 09:11 ET