Thousands of Christians have fled Iraq in the wake of a series of church bombings Aug. 1 that left at least 11 dead and dozens more wounded.
Pascale Isho Warda, Iraq's displacement and migration minister, was quoted in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper as saying 40,000 Christians had left Iraq, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported. The only Christian member of Iraq's interim government, Warda attributed the emigration to "insecurity and the attacks on the churches in Baghdad and Mosul."
The flight, largely to Syria, is what Christians working in Iraq feared would happen after the attack, which authorities have blamed on the al-Qaida terrorist network. The exodus "could harm Iraq's chances of becoming a pluralistic, tolerant society," said Middle East Concern, a coalition of Christians working to assist persecuted believers in the Middle East. "Many in Iraq believe one objective of the insurgency is to divide the population on religious lines as a means of preventing the new government from operating successfully."
The series of car bombings that exploded outside five churches in Mosul and Baghdad was the first coordinated terrorist assault aimed at Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led war in Iraq began. An Assyrian Catholic church, an Armenian fellowship and Chaldean Christian congregations in the two cities were targeted, Reuters news service reported.
Attackers timed some of the blasts for maximum effect, during evening services that attracted hundreds of faithful, the Los Angeles Times reported. "I was praying inside the church with all these people when all the windows shattered," said Rafael Kutaimi, pastor of an Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood, where at least a dozen worshipers were wounded. "We're all Iraqis, innocent people. I don't know what their goal is."
Christians are said to total about 800,000, or roughly 3 percent of Iraq's population of 24 million, and live mainly in Baghdad. Some groups estimate the number to have been as high as 2.5 million under Saddam Hussein, who officially preached religious tolerance and allowed Christians to worship freely.