- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

BAGHDAD — Priests thundered defiance yesterday at attackers who bombed Iraqi churches the previous Sunday, but fears of more of the deadly strikes ensured that they were preaching to half-empty pews.

Blasts at five churches in Iraq killed 11 persons during evening prayers Aug. 1 — 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 explosion 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 Archbishop Atamian, whose Armenian denomination is one of several Christian communities in Iraq.

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

Congregants at the church said that about one-third of the usual 600 worshippers attended Mass yesterday. This was a major break with tradition for Iraqi Christians, who pride themselves on a much stauncher level of devotion than seen in many European countries.

Locals leaving the church, which features solid arches and an imposing bell tower, said there was no safe place anymore in Baghdad, where the sounds of mortars and rockets start soon after sundown most days.

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

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

The blasts last week crushed the hopes of some Christians that they would be spared the kind of attacks that plagued mosques in the past year in apparent attempts to stir sectarian strife among Muslims.

Divided into close-knit denominations — among them Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans — many in Iraq’s 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, about 70 of the usual 1,000-strong congregation made it to a makeshift Mass celebrated yesterday in a nearby hall.

“They won’t come as they used to before,” said the Rev. Raphael Kutaimi, one of the senior clergymen. “[The attackers] wanted to kill people in the church. Of course, this will affect our members.”

Priests and other ministers have urged Christians to resist the temptation to quit Iraq and join their brethren in countries such as neighboring Syria. The clergymen fear an exodus in the hundreds would sap the spirit of their community.

“We will not flee Iraq. Our blood was mingled with the blood of Iraq’s martyrs,” said the Rev. 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 such as Leon Terzian, 72, an architect who designed the Armenian church after 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.”

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