Church bombings

August 03, 2004

THE COORDINATED attacks on three churches in Iraq Sunday, which killed at least a dozen people, were especially troubling for two reasons:

First, they represent a lethal escalation of attacks on Iraq's Christian minority that has been going on for some time now. Liquor stores and beauty parlors in Baghdad, typically owned by Christians, have been forced to close by militia groups, and clergy have been threatened in the city of Mosul. Clearly, insurgents are hoping to foment religious discord, and just as clearly, they are hoping to impose a much stricter Islamic way of life than now exists.

The Christian communities in Iraq are ancient, as are those in Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank. Taken together, the Chaldeans, Syrian Catholics and Armenian Orthodox account for about 3 percent of Iraq's population. Typically urban and middle class, they were not especially singled out for trouble by Saddam Hussein's regime but were vocal in welcoming its demise. They looked forward to a life of greater freedom, but the chaos in Iraq has instead opened the door to Islamist militants who are fighting for a Muslim theocracy.

Hundreds of Christian families have reportedly already fled abroad, and more wish to follow them. This unhappy development is just one more unintended - but not entirely unpredicted - consequence of President Bush's determination to go to war in Iraq. An ugly religious fanaticism has taken root there for the first time, and it could very easily come to haunt the United States some day. The president's unwavering focus on the evil of Mr. Hussein blinded him to the other potent evils lurking in the wings.

Second, the attacks were evidently designed to send a message not only to Iraqi Christians but to the West as well. Islamist fighters, al-Qaida included, seek to provoke a general war, one that would lead to the rise of a unified Islamic caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Morocco - and deep into Europe, too. The current violence in Iraq fits in with their vision. But to push the conflict further, it is in their interest to promote the idea of a "clash of civilizations." The murder of Christians at Sunday services would seem to be an effective way of creating shock and anger throughout the historically Christian countries of Europe and America, and set the stage for a furious reaction.

Unfortunately, many people in this country are also inclined to see the current conflict as a clash of civilizations. Yet that way lies madness, and untold violence and despair. All of Islam is not the enemy - and it is crucial that the United States, as the most powerful nation in the West, never lose sight of that. The goal must be to isolate the extremists from the mainstream, not to play into their hands.

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