Iraqi Christians flee Baghdad after attacks

BAGHDAD — Our Lady of Salvation church, once a vibrant center of prayer in this predominantly Muslim city, is nearly empty now. Last month, in a more than four-hour siege, gunmen shot their way in and killed at least 58 people, sending a message that Christians, among many others, are not safe in Iraq.

The names of the dead are pasted on the floor in the center of the church and surrounded by lighted candles. But the window glass is missing, destroyed by blasts and gunfire, and craters dot the ground — all reminders of the four suicide bombers who carried out the deadly attack along with other gunmen.

"Yes, we may shed some tears. We may have sadness, but we will not give up," the Rev. Mukhlis Shasha preached to about 50 people during one of a series of special Catholic Masses for the dead this week. Some who came to pray, sitting against plaster walls gouged with bullet holes, were not Christians, but neighbors who had come to pay their respects.

Just a few weeks ago, before the Oct. 31 massacre, more than 350 people regularly attended Sunday Masses here. But now, many from this ancient Syriac Catholic community have fled. Others are too afraid to attend Mass in a place they think is being targeted by extremist groups and militias that have plagued the country during more than seven years of war.

"People tell me the Bible says if the land does not want us we must leave," Shasha said. "I tell them you have to stand tall in these lands. If we all leave the country, who will remember this massacre, who will witness the resurrection of this church again?"

Since the attack, Christian homes across the capital have been hit by bombs, two Christian men were killed in Mosul and Christian families have made their way out of the country or fled to the much safer northern Iraq, where Kurdish security forces control the area. Christians have not been the only victims of violence in the past month, but the attacks against them are disproportionate to the size of the vulnerable minority.

The new wave of displacement could devastate an already dwindling Christian community. Some worry that if something doesn't change, there will soon be no Christians left in Iraq.

Iraqi Christians flee Baghdad after attacks 11/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:22pm]

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