Iraqi Christians worry after car bomb hits third Kirkuk church

By Kevin J. Jones

Kirkuk, Iraq, Aug 16, 2011 / 06:23 am (CNA).- In less than two weeks, car bomb attacks have hit three churches in the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. The city’s archbishop lamented that Christians’ security concerns are not a priority for the government.

Archbishop Louis Sako. Credit: ACN

On Aug. 15 it seemed that the entire country of Iraq was being hit with bomb attacks. The coordinated bombings hit 17 cities, ranging from northern Sunni lands to the southern Shiite-dominated region. According to an Associated Press estimate, 63 people were killed and 250 injured.

The explosion at St. Ephrem’s Syrian Orthodox Church at 1:30 a.m. Aug. 15 did not injure anyone. But its priest, Fr. Gewargis Elias, was lucky to escape with his life.

Security staff spotted a vehicle carrying suspicious devices and ordered him out just minutes before the blast, Aid to the Church in Need reports.

“Today they attacked the church. Who knows if tomorrow they will attack the clergy or the people?” asked Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk.

“The government will provide guards and repairs but after that we are not sure if there will be another explosion. Our concerns are not a priority for the government. What can we do? How can we plan for the future?”

The archbishop, who visited the church after the attack, reported that the bomb left a huge hole in the main wall and smashed pews and other church furnishings. There was evidence the attack was carefully planned.

Archbishop Sako himself was awoken by the blast, which broke the windows of his house. The church is less than 0.6 miles from his home.

“I saw many people in the church when I was there,” he said of his visit. “They were so very tired and shocked. They were asking: ‘Why our church? What is the reason?”

“There is no justification for attacks like this. We Christians have no part to play in politics. We are not causing people any problems,” the archbishop said.

Two weeks ago similar car bomb attacks took place at Holy Family Syrian Catholic Church and the nearby Evangelical church. At least 13 people in homes close to Holy Family church were injured, the majority not seriously.

Nobody had claimed responsibility for the attacks, Archbishop Sako said.

“This is only happening because we are Christians. Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”

The local governor has promised Archbishop Sako that the government will provide guards for churches and funding for repairs. However, the archbishop said that such measures offer little long-term reassurance.

Christians are continuing to emigrate from violent areas of Iraq. Five families have left Kirkuk since the attacks two weeks ago and the archbishop estimates that thousands of Christians have left the city over the past 30 years.

“This exodus of Christians is going on all the time. It is a big loss for those Christians who want to continue here. How long can they resist the pressure to leave?”

Because of the bombings, celebrations for the Feast of the Assumption have been scaled back to “modest” levels.

However, Archbishop Sako reported good relations with the Syrian Orthodox and other churches in Iraq. He added that Christians will work together.