AT LEAST 37 people were murdered in Iraq on Christmas Day in two bomb attacks by militants, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, used his sermon to highlight the injustices against Christian communities in the Middle East.
The biggest attack saw a car bomb go off near a church just as worshippers left a Christmas Mass, in the Baghdad suburb of Dora, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 38.
Slightly earlier, a bomb ripped through an outdoor market in the nearby Christian section of Athorien, killing 11 people and injuring another 21.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, estimated to number 400,000 to 600,000, has often been targeted by al-Qaeda and other Islamists, who see the Christians as unbelievers.
Along with Christians, other targets include civilians in restaurants, cafes or crowded public areas, as well as Shias and members of the Iraqi security forces, who are targeted in an attempt to undermine confidence in the Shia-led government and stir up Iraq’s already simmering sectarian tensions.
The bombings came amid a massive military operation in Iraq’s western desert as authorities try to hunt down insurgents who have stepped up attacks across the country in the past months, sending violence to levels not seen since 2008.
The Christmas Day attacks brought the total number of people killed so far this month in Iraq to 441. According to UN estimates, more than 8,000 people have been killed since the start of the year.
Fears over the threats to Christians in the Middle East were picked up by Archbishop Welby, who also called on Christians to “challenge the causes of poverty” despite signs of an economic recovery in the UK, as he addressed the congregation at Canterbury Cathedral.
The archbishop, who was enthroned as leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican community in March, said Christian communities in the Middle East were being “attacked and massacred”, and he condemned the continuing suffering in Palestine, Israel and South Sudan.
“Today, singing of Bethlehem, we see injustices in Palestine and Israel, where land is taken or rockets are fired, and the innocent suffer,” he said.
“We see injustice in the ever more seriously threatened Christian communities of the Middle East.
“They are attacked and massacred, driven into exile from a region in which their presence has always been essential.
“We see terrible news in South Sudan, where political ambitions have led towards ethnic conflict. On Saturday I was speaking to a bishop under siege, in a compound full of the dying.”
Meanwhile, reporters on the ground in Iraq said that as prayers were offered and gifts handed out, many were wondering what a surge in violence to its worst levels in half a decade and politicking ahead of April elections mean for a community whittled down by years of carnage and migration.
On Christmas Eve, the Mar Yousif Syriac Catholic church in western Baghdad looked like a walled fortress. Soldiers and police ran bomb detectors across cars, searched trunks and bags and patted down visitors before the evening ceremony.
Inside, the red confetti-strewn Christmas tree and strings of Santa-themed bunting contrasted with drab streets outside, strewn with concrete blocks and barbed wire.
But pews that would have overflowed with worshippers a few years ago were barely two-thirds full – a reflection of the fact that the Christian population has halved from 1.5 million before the US-led invasion.
“The future is very critical because of immigration,” said human rights activist William Warda before Tuesday night’s service, estimating ten to 20 Christians were leaving the country each day. “Many Christians are fleeing because of this issue, because there is no sign of a bright future.”
The problems saw Ammar al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite politicians, visit a leading Christian church in Iraq for a Christmas Eve mass.
Mr Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, spoke of tolerance, forgiveness and peace, saying Jesus Christ was an example.
Then he turned to al-Qaeda. “They target you like they target us. There are people in this country who believe anyone who has a different opinion should be killed,” he said as a small army of bodyguards fanned out through the church.
“We are partners as targets. And we will remain partners in confronting extremism, violence and terrorism,” Mr Hakim said.