Amid a wave of violence that swept across Iraq on Monday (Aug 15), 17 cities were hit, claiming about 70 lives, according to The Associated Press. The Christian community in Kirkuk was attacked when an insurgent blast left a church building severely damaged. This was the second attack, in just two weeks, against churches in the area.
In the most recent attack, an explosive device was placed next to a church wall at the Syriac Orthodox Church of Mar Afram. The church was damaged beyond repair when the church’s walls exploded. Abuna Gourgis Alyes, a priest at the Mar Afram church, told Compass News that Monday’s attack was the third and most devastating one against his church in the last five years. A Protestant pastor who requested anonymity spoke to Compass by phone as he stood in the rubble of Mar Afram . “Now I am here and seeing it with my own eyes,” the pastor said, overwhelmed at the sight of the blown-out wall and wreckage. “They have to demolish the church and rebuild it.”
Alyes reported that no one was hurt in Monday’s attack. In a matter-of-fact voice, he said the greatest damage to the congregation is fear. “Many will leave Kirkuk because of this explosion,” Alyes said. “Many Christians take this event as an opportunity to make their decision to leave the city. I am sure many will leave after this.”
Kirkuk and its surrounding towns belong to an oil-rich territory claimed by Kurdish and Arab administrations. For years authorities have postponed a referendum to determine which side would have the right to Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city that includes Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, including a small minority of Arab Christians. The conflict over the city has put Christians in the cross-fire of the opposing groups. A young Muslim Iraqi from Kirkuk’s Turkmen community told Compass that Monday’s unrest and the damage to the church is part of an effort to destabilize the country in an ongoing struggle for power.
“When Christians are targeted, they accuse extremists,” said the Iraqi, who identified himself only as Kamal. “I think some people are trying to create unrest and destabilize the situation.” He said Kirkuk is one of the hottest points of tension in the country, with all three groups – Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds – competing for control of the city. Article 140 of the Iraq’s constitution states that the city’s future will be determined based on a demographic majority of the population in a referendum. Christian journalist Emad Matty said the attacks in Kirkuk are part of a greater, politically motivated tactic to purge Arab-majority cities, including Baghdad and Mosul, of their Christian populations. Asked how he thought Christians saw the attacks in Kirkuk this month, he said the predominant feeling was fear.
Alyes, who has lost a relative to the violence, said he would not give up hoping for peace and stability in Iraq nor stop holding mass in the city. He asked Christians around the world to pray for the situation facing the church in Iraq. “In your heart pray to Jesus that He gives us peace and stability,” Alyes said. “For the sake of Jesus, even if we don’t have a building, we will keep praying.”
According Open Doors, there are 300,000 to 350,000 Christians left in Iraq, down from 1.2 million before the 2003 U.S.-led military operation in the country. Kirkuk is located 155 miles north of Baghdad and has about 10,000 Christians.