- Associated Press - Monday, January 3, 2011

BAGHDAD (AP) — Rafah Toma survived one of the most horrific attacks on Iraq’s tiny Christian community — the siege on a Baghdad church two months ago that left 68 people dead — only to be gunned down in her home Monday by thieves stealing her cash and jewelry.

It was not immediately clear whether Ms. Toma’s death was the latest attack to target Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, or instead another of the brutal robberies that have become commonplace for all Iraqis, Muslim and Christian alike.

The priest that found her battered body, Father Mukhlis, serves at the Our Lady of Salvation church where more than 120 people were taken hostage on Oct. 31 after gunmen stormed the building during an evening Mass. He said that Ms. Toma, who was in her 50s, was one of the parishioners at Mass that evening.

“It was her fate to not die in the attack on the church but to die by gunmen who killed her to steal her gold and money,” he said. “Christians face a tragedy in this country.”

Father Mukhlis went to her house after receiving a worried phone call from Ms. Toma’s sister saying she hadn’t been able to get in touch with Ms. Toma. The sister urged the priest to check in on Ms. Toma, as he does with many of his congregants, who are now often scared to leave their homes for fear of attacks.

Father Mukhlis said he walked into Ms. Toma’s house and found her lying on the kitchen floor, blood pooled on the ground from what he thought was a strike to the head. A police officer said she also had been shot.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi Christians have suffered repeated violence and harassment from Sunni Muslim extremists who view the Christians as infidels and agents of the West, but since the church siege, the dwindling community is feeling itself even more of a target.

“As Christians we feel we’ve been sentenced to death and we’re waiting for an execution day,” said George Abdul Ahad, a 55-year-old Christian from Baghdad. Like thousands of other Christians, he’s thinking of leaving the country.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 1,000 families have fled to areas in northern Iraq under Kurdish control, a region generally much more peaceful than the rest of Iraq, since the church attack. The agency said growing numbers of other Iraqi Christians were arriving in nearby countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and contacting the UNHCR for help.

No reliable figures are available on how many Christians remain in this nation of about 29 million people. A U.S. State Department report says Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 remain, down from a prewar level of as high as 1.4 million by some estimates.

Also Monday, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden car near a government building in the center of the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, killing one passer-by and wounding 33 people, police and hospital officals said.

The officals spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Also Monday, the U.S. military said two American soldiers were killed in central Iraq, the first reported U.S. fatalities in 2011.

The military said in a statement the soldiers died late Sunday but gave no further details. The names of the dead are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

The death raises to at least 4,431 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

About 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq and are focused mainly on assisting and training Iraqi security forces. All U.S. forces are scheduled to leave the country by the end of this year.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Saad Abdul-Kadir contributed to this report.


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