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Iraqi Christians Become Targets of Attacks


Iraqi Christians have become targets of attacks by bandits and Muslim militants, but many continue to risk injury, and death, to attend church services.

While gunshots can be heard in the distance, hundreds of Iraqi Christians sing songs about Jesus Christ, who, they say gives them hope in a country devastated by war and decades of dictatorship.

To get to church, believers race through the streets every Sunday, fearing attacks by Muslim extremists who have targeted Christian-owned shops, and Christian women who do not wear head scarves.

Among the worshippers are men who survived the horrors of the front lines when they were forced to serve in the army of Saddam Hussein. Some even want the former Iraqi leader to visit their church, so he can, in their words, receive forgiveness for his sins.

This is one of many churches that have expanded or been established since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. The open meeting of the Evangelical Alliance Church would have been impossible under the previous regime, when all but traditional churches were banned.

Church members met secretly for several years. The arrival of American forces enabled the congregation to officially open its doors. But visiting the Sunday church service can be dangerous.

Maral Manuel, 32, who calls herself a born-again Christian, is looking to the heavens for protection in Iraq's increasingly volatile society.

"Lord Jesus protected our lives, because you know there [are] many thieves, criminals and murders," she said. "It is a difficult life. But He saved us by His soldiers and Angels."

When asked how she goes to church when there are a lot of shootings, she replies, "We don't have a car, but we have a special church bus and busses to our work where we are going."

Ms. Manuel and other Christians say the special bus service will be needed for some time, amid ongoing violence directed against Christian believers.

They claim the security situation worsened because most Iraqi policemen and soldiers were dismissed by the U.S.-led coalition.

Among those expressing concern about the lack of law and order are Christian shop owners like Louis Naman, who sells drinks and air time for satellite phones on a busy downtown street. He only narrowly survived when the beer store next to his was sprayed with bullets this summer by alleged Muslim militants.

"There is someone here selling beers and other alcoholic drinks, whiskey, and they shot us," he said. "Our friend was killed, although he did nothing. Just walking in the street. Four other [colleagues] were wounded."

International aid workers say this was not an isolated incident. They say at least seven Christian-owned alcoholic drink factories have been burned to the ground by Muslim extremists since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In addition, Christian women have been attacked, and several of them have been killed or wounded. The Iraq Coordinator of the well-informed Jordan-based Manara Book Ministries, Saleh Fakhouri, says the situation in some areas is particularly bad.

"In Basra, in the south, there is a high concentration of the Shiite Muslims," said Saleh Fakhouri. "They even threaten Christian women to cover their heads. If she was walking without covering her head, she would be punished in the middle of the street. So this is only the beginning of clear interference in the people's daily lives. With their traditions and teachings [Muslim women] must cover their heads. And they are asking and actually forcing Christian ladies to cover their heads [too] while walking in the streets."

Human rights groups have linked the violence against Iraq's roughly one million Christians mainly to hard liners in the Shiite-Muslim majority. The Shiites have also been accused of trying to increase their influence, compared to Sunni Muslims, in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Muslim militants have been particularly angered by reports of a revival of Christianity in Iraq, and plans by international organizations to increase the distribution of Christian literature. This includes the first bible for children to be published in the Kurdish language, spoken in northern Iraq.

The fragile security situation has also had an impact on members of traditional churches, like the Armenian Catholic Church. One Armenian church is among the largest in Baghdad, with 2,000 members. It recently canceled its traditional evening mass because of security fears. Yet, life continues.

Armenian Catholic Priest and Patriarchal Vicar Antoine Atamian welcomes "a new life, a new member" as he baptizes nine-month-old baby Rita Malayan.

Her proud parents watch anxiously as Father Antoine offers a blessing over the baby in an Armenian dialect. They wanted to baptize Rita when she was even younger, but they say it was too dangerous to go to church.

The priest says the baptism symbolizes hope for a new future in Iraq, where despite a difficult situation and the attacks on Christians, churches are growing.

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