United Press International
Aug 2 2004

Analysis:Top Shiite condemns church bombs
By Roland Flamini
Chief International Correspondent



WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- The most significant voice raised in
condemnation of Sunday's wave of bomb attacks on Christian churches
in Iraq belonged to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite Muslim
leader.

"We denounce and condemn these terrible crimes," Sistani declared in
a statement Monday. "We stress the need to respect the rights of
Christians in Iraq and those of other religions, including their
right to live in their own home, Iraq, in peace." Sistani is
considered the most authoritative cleric in Iraq's Shiite community
comprising over 60 percent of the population. His quick reaction was
seen as an attempt to distance mainstream Shiites from the bombings.

The bombings -- clearly coordinated -- were the first open attack on
Iraq's Christian minority, although the community had been under
mounting pressure for some time. So far, no group has claimed
responsibility, but some Iraqi Christians had privately said Shiite
fundamentalists could have been responsible.

The national security adviser to Iraq's interim government, however,
blames al-Qaida-linked terrorists. Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, said there was
"no shadow of a doubt that (these attacks) bear the trademark of Abu
Musab al Zarqawi." The Jordanian-born terrorist who is said to have
links to al-Qaida is blamed for a string of suicide bombings in Iraq.
His group has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of an
American and a South Korean, and the U.S. government has offered a
$25 million reward for his capture.

"It's clear (Zarqawi and his extremists) want to drive Christians out
of the country," Rubaie is quoted as saying by the Italian news
agency ANSA. But Iraq's Christians are going anyway. Once just shy of
a million, the Christian community has dwindled down to about 650,000
because of a steady exodus. Tolerated by the Saddam Hussein regime as
long as they kept a low profile, Iraqi Christians are being driven
out by fears of the present violence and uncertainty about the
future.

The pressure has come from Islamic fundamentalists, according to
Iraqi church sources. Many Christians have received anonymous letters
urging them to convert to Islam. The letters usually include a list
of the consequences of refusal, which include death.

Several Christian businessmen who sold alcohol have been attacked by
Muslim fundamentalists in a recent campaign against alcohol sales in
Iraq. Many of the victims were Armenians, according to reports
published in Iraq, and the first car bomb blast Sunday was outside an
Armenian church in Baghdad.

Also, some Iraqi clerics say Christians have become identified with
the U.S.-led coalition forces, which are mainly from Christian
countries.

The revised death toll from the car bomb blasts outside four churches
in Baghdad and one in Mosul during or immediately after Sunday
services was 11, according to Iraqi authorities Monday. Ten
worshippers died in Baghdad, and one in the northern city of Mosul,
in the Sunni Muslim heartland, 220 miles from Baghdad. A sixth bomb
was found outside another Baghdad church and disarmed by Iraqi
police.

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II sent a message of condolence to the
Catholic patriarch of Iraq, Emmnuel III Delly. "In this hour of trial
I feel spiritually close to the Iraqi church and Iraqi society, and I
renew my expression of solidarity with the pastors and faithful," the
pope wrote. He said he would continue to work and pray "so that a
climate of peace and reconciliation will soon return to that beloved
country."

Vatican sources said Monday that the bombings had alarmed the pope,
who is concerned that a wave of anti-Christian feeling in Iraq could
spread to other Arab countries and turn into a virtual religious war
between Islam and Christianity.

The Russian Orthodox church also issued a statement condemning
Sunday's attacks. In addition to the Chaldean, Syrian and Assyrian
Catholics in communion with Rome, Iraqi Christian denominations
include Armenian, Syrian and Greek Orthodox churches, Presbyterians
and Anglicans.