By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)-- Minority Christians were among those suffering Sunday, May 19, after at least 140 people died during four consecutive days of violence in Iraq, raising fears that sectarian conflicts could lead the troubled Middle East nation into civil war.
"It is difficult to tell of the intensity of violence here over the past week," said Canon Andrew White, who leads the St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad, the capital. "The slaughters and massacres have intensified so much that the sound of explosions has almost become the norm," he added in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
"At first the attacks were all against the Shia by the Sunni [Muslims], but on Friday we saw a major Shia response against the Sunni with over one hundred Sunnis being killed as they left their mosques."
More than 70 people were reportedly killed in bombings on Friday, May 17, in majority Sunni districts in Baghdad and surrounding areas, in what media called "the deadliest day in Iraq" in more than eight months.
White, who negotiated with different factions in the past, said 80 percent of the initial violence was linked to "Sunni terrorists" with most having links to the 'al-Qaida in Iraq' terror group.
"The sad fact is that there are now many Sunni clerics shouting from TV that the Shia should be killed before the Jews and the Christians," he added.
Among several other deadly attacks was violence Saturday, May 18, that killed at least 16 people, including a police officer, his wife and two children, while armed men abducted 10 policemen, officials said.
In Anbar province, four state-backed so-called Sahwa (Awakening) fighters, and allies of the US military, were killed in an attack on their headquarters, reported Al Jazeera television. Armed men reportedly also ambushed and abducted 10 Sunni policemen near Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, a Sunni heartland bordering Syria.
Amid the chaos, White said he visited some of the 550 local Iraqi Christian families belonging to his church amid concerns about injuries. "There are people injured but not killed as far as I know." Yet, "The more terror and destruction that our people experience the more they are certain that when they have lost everything Jesus is all they have left," he noted.
That became clear last week when Jews and Christians celebrated the Jewish feast of Shavuot, held 50 days after Passover to celebrate that God gave the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and "the Holy Spirit came" in his power, he said. "The celebration was very small and secret. We dined in the church as Jews and Christians in a nation where there are only six Jews left."
The celebration came amid concerns that part of the violence is specifically targeted against Christians.
Since the fall of leader Saddam Hussein a decade ago, about 1,000 Christians are known to have been killed, a relatively high number compared with percentages killed from other groups in Iraqi society, according to Open Doors, a Christian aid and advocacy group.
"If these attacks take place in a Christian neighborhood or a Christian village, you can assume they are targeted, especially against the Christian population of the neighborhoods and villages," added an Open Doors field worker, who was not identified amid security concerns.
Among those killed last month was Adbuljabar Khidher Toza, a devoted Christian from Mosul, Open Doors said. Armed men apparently shot him to death in front of his house. All these targeted attacks are part of a wider attempt to remove Christians from Iraq, the field worker said.
"We received documents and threats stating that the aim of the Islamist Insurgents is to make Iraq a 'Muslim only' country; they want the Christians out."
Louis Raphael Sako, the recently elected Chaldean Catholic patriarch of Iraq and Syria, says he is afraid of what Islamist rule would mean for Christians.
"People are afraid of a kind of Islamic state as it was in the seventh century where Christians would be considered second-class citizens," he added in published remarks.
Ongoing violence prompted hundreds of thousands of believers to flee the region to nearby countries Jordan and Lebanon as well as Iraq's northern Kurdish region.
Of the roughly 1.2 million Christians in the early 1990s, some 350,000 have remained in the conflict-torn country, according to Open Doors estimates.
(With additional reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos)
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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