New attacks in Iraq demand an ecumenical response

The insurgency in Iraq took a new, vicious and dangerous turn Sunday with the bomb attacks on five Christian churches during services. A t least 11 people were killed, and dozens were injured.
The bombings are a sign that radical fundamentalists are not only targeting those they consider their enemies today -- U.S. forces and Iraqi government officials -- but those they see as impediments in the future to their establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state .
The nature of the attacks is also an indication of the strength of foreign influences in the insurgent movement in Iraq. Unlike neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq has had a vibrant Christian community, free to worship as it pleased.
A previously unknown group called the Committee of Planning and Follow-up in Iraq has claimed responsibility for the bombings and warned more attacks would follow, although the authenticity of its Web site posting could not be verified.
Initial condemnation
Islamic religious leaders in Iraq quickly condemned the attacks.
Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the bombings were "hideous crimes" and a threat to the fragile nation's "unity, stability and independence."
"We assert the importance of respecting the rights of Christian civilians and other religious minorities and reaffirm their right to live in their home country Iraq in security and peace," al-Sistani, based in Najaf, said in a statement.
Even a spokesman for rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr condemned the wave of bombings as "a vile and cowardly act." And various Muslim clerics paid courtesy calls on priests at the victimized churches.
The clerics can best show solidarity with their Christian countrymen by issuing a call this Friday for Muslims to make themselves present at churches throughout the county on Sunday as a clear message to the insurgents that their attacks on Christians will not be tolerated and their plan to drive the Christian minority from Iraq will be fought.
Such an act of solidarity would not be entirely selfless, because no one -- Christian or Muslim -- is safe from the attacks of extremists. The extremists have no tolerance for anyone who is unwilling to subjugate themselves to their reading of Islamic doctrine.
Attacking the rancor
An act of solidarity is necessary, too, to erase some of the bitterness felt by those under attack. Bombings and bloodshed have a destructive effect on the tolerance of even a gentle soul. Consider the reaction of Sister Fidel, a nun standing outside of Our Lady of Deliverance Syrian Catholic Church, the target of one of the bombs. Sliding a finger across her wrinkled throat, the 67-year-old nun said, "They should be slaughtered, these people."
A nation already divided by politics, religion and ethnicity needs no more cause for the divisiveness these bombs were meant to encourage. The nation needs healing, and, if responsible civil and religious leaders not only see these bombings for the outrages that they are, but stand up courageously against them, the attacks will backfire. Bombings meant to divide can bring instead unity when men and women of good will have the courage and wisdom to make it so.

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