New fears of an organized campaign to flush Christianity out of Iraq have been sparked by the recent attacks on churches in leading Iraqi cities.
Concerns about a new "religious-cleansing" drive were raised by sources close to the Church reeling from Sunday's (January 6) coordinated bomb-blasts on at least six church buildings in Mosul and Baghdad.
Iraqi Church sources, who requested anonymity out of concern for their safety, told the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), that while only one person was injured by the bomb attacks, the were clearly not intended to kill or cause damage. However, the assaults were still "very worrying".
ACN’s sources see Iraq becoming increasingly divided along sectarian lines, with Sunni and Shia Muslim extremists trying to expel Christians from their respective spheres of control.
Speaking from one of the cities that were targeted, a leading Iraqi bishop told ACN of the people's shock, especially coming after at least two months of relative calm.
"People had become so optimistic but now they have realized that things are not so clear,” the bishop said.
Asked about the reaction of the people, the bishop related, "The people were shocked of course. They were very calm and took it very well." He continued, saying, "It seems that the people changed their minds and decided not to kill anybody. Thank God for that."
The bishop said that the bombings would discourage Christians from returning to Baghdad and Mosul and encourage yet more emigration of the remaining Christians, which he said was continuing even before the attacks.
He spoke of how in the wake of the attacks, he and other leading clergy had visited Christians to boost morale.
"The best thing we can do is to be with the people," he said. "I have been with many families in the last few days - just to try and encourage them."
He called on Christians in the West to pray for the Church in Iraq. "We need the consolation of your prayers," he said. "Through your prayers, we can draw strength from one another."
Marie-Ange Siebrecht, head of ACN Projects in Iraq, said: "In most of the news on Iraq, we never hear about the Christians. Iraqi Christians belong to Iraq. They are part of the community, living side-by-side with people of a different faith.
"It would be a disaster if the Christians were forced to be segregated and cut off from those with whom they have made their home for so long."
There are no accurate figures for Iraq's Christian population but the best estimates claim that more than half of the 1.2 million Christians in the country in early 2003 have now fled and that the vast majority in Baghdad have now escaped.
The Christians' declining numbers as well as a continuing break-down of law and order in key parts of the country, were two key reasons given by the Church sources to explain the targeting of Christians who, they said, had few guards and other security measures in place.