A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Church Bombings: New Sectarian Strife?

Sunday saw a wave of bombings of Iraqi churches — six in the Baghdad region on the weekend, at least one in Mosul on Monday — leading to new concern about sectarian violence. Attacks on Shi‘ite targets have increased lately as well, suggesting Sunni insurgents, perhaps what's left of Al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, are striking out in the wake of US troop withdrawals from city security duties.

Any sectarian attack is deplorable, including those aimed at Sunni targets. But where as the Sunni and Shi‘ite populations have their own defense mechanisms in their militias and in the Iraqi security forces, the Christians are particularly vulnerable and Iraq's ancient Christian population has declined rapidly due to emigration since the war. Ironically, Christians did pretty well under the secular Ba‘ath Party, co-founded by a Christian (Michael Aflaq, who ended his days living in Iraqi exile from his native Syria); Saddam's longtime senior aide — Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister — known to the world as Tariq ‘Aziz, was a Chaldean Catholic whose real name was Mikhail Yuhanna. (Michael John, basically.)

Attacks on Christians were common in the bad old days of 2004-2006 or so, when sectarian strife was predominant. But things got better as life in the Iraqi cities calmed down in the past year or so. Whether this particular wave of church attacks is the beginning of a new campaign or just a one-shot affair remains to be seen.

Let me be clear about one thing: No Iraqi religious, ethnic, or linguistic minority (or majority for that matter) should be attacked; those of us of Christian background may naturally empathize with a Christian minority under siege, but Sunni-Shi‘i violence is equally disturbing, as is ethnic Arab-Kurdish-Turkmen violence in Kirkuk or elsewhere, and the Yazidis have been hard hit during the last few years because they have little external support base.

But after a period of seeming amelioration in Christian-Muslim relations, the church attacks are another symptom of the insurgents testing the government in the wake of the US pullback from the cities. Not good news, I should think.

Note: I haven't seen any indication yet of the sectarian nature of the Christian churches. Several Catholics (whether Latin or Chaldean are not specified) are quoted in some of the news reports, but it isn't clear that any specifric Christian denomination was targeted more than others. That may be worth determining, however.

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