A spate of bombs targeting churches in Baghdad this week has Iraq’s minority Christian community trembling at the prospect of being the next victim of militants trying to reignite war.
Iraqi Christians, one of the country’s weakest ethnic or religious groups, have usually tried to steer clear of its many-sided conflict. For the most part, they manage.
While Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims killed each other by the dozen at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007, Christians were rarely targeted, although sometimes they were.
On Sunday, in apparently coordinated attacks, five bombs went off outside churches in Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 21, including a number of Christians.
Iraqi Christians or “Messihi”, as they are called by an Arabic word related to the Hebrew term “Messiah,” number around 750,000. That makes them a tiny minority in a Muslim nation of 28 million. They are mostly concentrated around Baghdad and the violent northern city of Mosul, which is still struggling to shake off al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups.
Historically, though, they have got on well with their Muslim compatriots. Under Ottoman rule, non-Islamic faiths were generally respected. More recently, Saddam Hussein used to draw attention to his Chaldean Christian Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz, currently doing time for assisting Saddam’s mass murders of Iraqi merchants, as an example of the Baath party’s religious tolerance.
But partly because they are small, Christians are an easy target. About 2,000 families, an estimated 12,000 people, fled Mosul after a campaign of threats and attacks on Christians there in October last year, but many have since returned.