Baghdad (AsiaNews) The start of the month of Ramadan in Iraq was marked by violence but also by significant openness by al Sistani towards the Vatican. Yesterday, two churches, one in Baghdad and another in Mosul, were struck. Recently, the country has seen an escalation of attacks against Christians, thought by some to be the reaction of radical Muslims to the speech of the pope in Regensburg. However, religious leaders, among them al Sistani, have shown solidarity and understanding towards the Vatican. Moreover, the representative of the highest religious exponent of Iraqi Shiites has expressed the desire to be able to visit the Pope.
Yesterday morning at 11.15am local time, armed men attacked the Chaldean Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, firing at least 80 shots on the building. "Thank God there was no Mass at the time," one member of the community told AsiaNews, "so no one was killed or injured, there was just some damage done to the eastern part of the building and a few broken windows."
The atmosphere in the city is very tense. Recently, Muslim militias threatened the Catholic bishop and priests that unless they publicly condemned the address of the pope at the University of Regensburg within 72 hours, Christians would be killed and churches burned down. In recent years, some churches, shrines and even the bishop's house were the target of terrorist attacks. For fear of further attacks, the bishop had posters put up to say that "neither Iraqi Christians nor the pope want to destroy ties with Muslims".
Defying the prevailing atmosphere of terror, last night, Chaldean Catholics left their homes to participate in Vespers Mass in the very church that had been attacked. "Our faith is a challenge to violence. The militias fear us because our faith is stronger than their bullets," a Christian told AsiaNews.
Yesterday morning in Baghdad, two bombs went off outside the Assyrian Orthodox Church of St Mary in the central neighbourhood of Karrada. The attackers put a bomb under the parish priest's car. The blast, that took place at 9.30am, drew many people, including some from the parish. Immediately afterwards another bomb went off close by, injuring many people and killing a watchman of the church.
Some think these bombs targeted Christians in the wake of the controversy surrounding the pope's speech in Regensburg. But in recent days, Orthodox communities distanced themselves from the words of the pope, putting up posters outside their churches expressing their disagreement with him. Some Catholic figures said the attack on St Mary's Church was much more likely a vendetta based on ethnic-religious motives: the Assyrian Orthodox Patriarch recently visited communities in Kurdistan and probably the bombs were meant to be a threat by Sunni or Shiite militias against such ties with Kurds.
The lecture of Benedict XVI in Regensburg was misunderstood by the media as being an attack on Islam. Although the pope explained the true meaning of his words several times over, bitter and threatening criticisms continue to come from many sectors of Islam. In Iraq, it is fundamentalist and political Muslim splinter groups that are reacting violently to the pope's address. Recently, the Secretary of the Nunciature in Baghdad, Mgr Thomas Halim Abib, met religious representatives of Islam and offered them an Arabic translation of the words of the pope, so Muslim leaders would be able to understand the true meaning of what was said. Muslim religious leaders undertake the task of informing their communities. Mgr Thomas told AsiaNews that in these days, the official representative of the Grand Ayatollah al Sistani, the undisputed leader of Shiite Islam in Iraq, visited the Vatican Nunciature twice to express friendship and solidarity. The representative of al Sistani accepted the explanations rendered by the Nunciature and spread them among all Iraqi Shiite communities, expressing respect for the Holy See "that has always been close to the Iraqi people". The representative of the grand ayatollah also said he wished to go to Rome to visit Pope Benedict XVI.