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Five Churches Targeted in Bomb Blasts Across Baghdad

BAGHDAD, (AFP) -- Bombs have exploded near five churches around Baghdad, followed by an artillery shell striking a hotel parking lot near a sixth church, causing damage but no casualties, officials said.

"There were five explosions caused by improvised bombs near to these churches," said Colonel Adnan Abdel Rahman, an interior ministry spokesman.

The patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Monsignor Emmanuel Delly, expressed the fears of his beleagured community.

"If the government is powerless, what can we do," Delly said.

"We call on them (attackers) not to touch the holy sites."

In an apparently coordinated strike against Iraq's tiny Christian community, the church of Saint Joseph in the west of the Iraqi capital was hit at about 4:00 am (0100 GMT), the spokesman said.

Twenty minutes later, another blast ripped through the streets at another Saint Joseph church, in Dora, southern Baghdad. After another 20 minutes, Saint Paul's church was struck in the same area.

At 4:50 am, the Roman Catholic St. George church in the central district of Karrada was rocked by a blast and engulfed in flames, leaving the wood-built sanctuary completely charred.

"My family and I fled from the fire," said the church's priest Nabil Jamil Sulaiman, wandering around the mangled debris.

"Thanks God, there were no wounded or dead."

On the wall inside the charred remains of the church could be made out some words from the Bible talking of the broken body of Jesus Christ.

A fifth explosion occurred about an hour later at Saint Thomas church in Mansour, to the west.

"The buildings were damaged but no one was hurt," the interior ministry spokesman said.

The violence resumed hours later when an artillery shell was fired into a car park between a hotel and Saint George's Anglican church, witnesses and US soldiers said.

"There were no injuries," said Tassin Ali, a security guard who had been sitting at the front gate to the hotel.

The projectile struck directly opposite the church but it was unclear whether it had been the target, an AFP reporter said.

About five cars were damaged in the blast.

The US military said it knew of three explosions in the vicinity of the churches. One church caught fire after an explosion inside the building; a bomb exploded outside a second church, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a third, said Major Philip Smith.

Iraq's Christian community has been heavily targeted in the unrest that has swept Iraq following last year's US-led invasion and some have picked up and left.

At the start of August, four attacks against Christian targets in Baghdad and two others in Mosul left 10 people dead and 50 injured.

Besides large-scale attacks, liquor stores, owned by Christians, have been blown up by Islamic militants.

There are only about 700,000 Christians in Iraqi, or three percent of the country's population of some 25 million people, which is majority Muslim.

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