Global Policy Forum

Church Bombings Outrage Iraqis of All Faiths


By Pamela Constable

Washington Post
August 3, 2004

Two teenage sisters picked disconsolately through the wreckage of their bedroom Monday: Barbie dolls, movie magazines and a jumble of lingerie half-buried in the dust and debris from a car bomb that had exploded in the street below their window Sunday evening. "What am I going to wear now?" wailed Rana, 16, lifting a ruined blouse from her bed and letting it drop.

In the parlor downstairs, the girls' father, Majid Shammari, shook his head in anger. It was not the damage to his stately home that outraged him, said the graying Muslim engineer. It was the terrorists' cynical targeting of the Assyrian church next door, a community he said he had always been proud to know as a neighbor and friend. "From the time of my birth, there has never been a question of whether you are Christian or Muslim," Shammari said, sweeping up shards of glass from a shattered fish tank. "We rent our upstairs to a Christian family, we share food with each other. The bonds between all of us are very strong. What cowards are these terrorists to hurt the innocent, to try and break those bonds? If that is their aim, I swear they will never, never succeed."

Shammari's determination was echoed by other residents who live near Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad's Karrada district. It was one of four Baghdad churches attacked in coordinated car bombings Sunday, including an Armenian church a few blocks away. A fifth church was bombed in the northern city of Mosul. U.S. military officials said at least 11 people were killed and 47 wounded.

The neighborhood is home to a diverse mix of Christian Arabs and Muslim Kurds, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Many have lived for years near the sand-colored stone church, built in 1961, that rises to a soaring double arch around an abstract cross. Above the wooden doors, an Arabic inscription reads, "Glory to God in heaven, and on Earth, peace."

A day after the bombing, neighbors of all faiths came out to inspect the tableau of charred vehicles, dangling power cables and sprays of broken glass surrounding a deep crater in the road between the church and Shammari's house. Many people peered through the locked church gates, and some paused to say a prayer. Although the bomb was clearly aimed at the church and its congregation, a dozen houses and apartments nearby were damaged in the blast, and Muslims at home or in the street were wounded by the same shrapnel and flying glass that bloodied the fleeing worshipers, adding to a sense of collective victimization.

"We helped protect this church from looters during the war. It is a house of God, just like a mosque," said Khadima Wadi, 54, a Shiite woman who lives with nine relatives in a one-room house behind the church. The blast broke all the windows in her house and blew off part of the roof. "We slaughtered a sheep to the Virgin Mary and prayed for our sons to be safe during the war," Wadi said. "Now we ask her to take revenge on these criminals."

Christians in the neighborhood emphasized that they had never felt any threat from Iraqi Muslims, and that the atmosphere in the community had been peaceful until Sunday's attacks. Some made a point of visiting their Muslim neighbors whose houses had been damaged, and the Rev. Rafael Kotaimi, the priest at Lady of Salvation, paid a personal call on the Shammari house.

Maryam and Sarah, two sisters who live across the street from Lady of Salvation and did not want to give their surname, were attending evening Mass when the bomb exploded outside. Within seconds, they said, the crowded sanctuary became a black, smoke-filled pit, filled with panicked screams and showered with deadly window glass. "We've been going to that church for 17 years and nothing ever happened. After all, our religion is from ancient times in Babylon," said Sarah, sitting with her parents in an immaculate parlor with a small crucifix by the front door. "But now we are living in fear. We just want to live in peace with our neighbors, but now the terror has touched everything, even churches."

Despite most residents' insistence that the bombings would not drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians, there was an edgy, bitter tone to some of their comments. Several also cast blame on the U.S.-led forces who have occupied the country for months, saying they had permitted chaos and lawlessness to flourish.

Outside the church, Fadi, 26, a young engineer, stood staring at a wrecked car that had melted into the pavement. Then he looked up angrily. "Before the Americans came, everything was fine," he said. "We all celebrated Easter and Christmas and Eid," a Muslim holiday. "We were out in the streets until midnight. Now there is no army, no police, no security on the borders. They say they brought us freedom, but look what this freedom has brought us."

A block away, at the Shammari home, a stream of sober-faced well-wishers picked their way among bloodstained rubble strewn across the front yard. A few feet beyond the collapsed wall, American soldiers impassively guarded the bomb site. The engineer greeted each visitor gratefully, repeating the story of how he had heard the first bomb explode at the Armenian church and was rushing down the street to help when the second bomb went off next to his home.

His wife hung back in the shadows, her eyes red and her shirt still bloodstained from carrying a wounded child out of the church. The couple's two daughters came downstairs, dazed and dirt-streaked. They were lugging a plastic sack full of stuffed animals and singed clothing salvaged from their room. "I guess we'll have to tear down the house and build another one," the father said matter-of-factly, gesturing at the devastation around him. The teenagers glanced at each other and burst into tears.

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