By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)– Minority Christians in Iraq anxiously awaited the outcome of a parliamentary vote testing the country’s still fragile democracy Sunday, March 7, as suspected Islamic militants killed up to 30 people in the capital Baghdad and other areas of the troubled nation.
Voters cast ballots while dozens of blasts were heard in Baghdad. Mortars and bombs rocked the city, striking the Green Zone, the airport compound and several crowded neighborhoods, witnesses said.
A large explosion at a booby-trapped building in the Ur district in eastern Baghdad killed at least 30 people, Iraqi police officials added.
In Anbar Province in western Iraq, some 10 blasts were reported as mortars plummeted the city center, according to witnesses. Explosions were also heard in Diyala Province, north of Baghdad.
The violence has been linked to fighters with ties to groups such as al-Qaeda who want to establish strict Islamic control in Iraq and oppose what they view as Western-imposed elections.
In a statement, the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, warned those who planned to vote that they would expose themselves to the “anger of Allah,” and “all kinds of weapons of the mujahedeen.”
Sunday’s blood stained ballot came after at least eight Iraqi Christians died in the last three weeks and hundreds of families fled the northern city of Mosul, once a stronghold of Christianity here, church leaders said.
Christians are seen by militants as “enemies” of Islam and have also been targeted for kidnappings aimed at raising ransom to finance the still ongoing violent insurgency in Iraq, according to rights investigators and church officials.
In one of the latest known incidents in Mosul, 59-year-old Aishwa Maroki and his two sons — Mokhlas, 31, and Bassim, 25, were killed by unknown gunmen at home around February 23, local police and Christian sources said.
The victims, whose names have also been spelled slightly differently in news reports, were the father and brothers of a prominent Christian leader, who was himself kidnapped and later released two years ago, said Barnabas Fund, a prominent Christian rights group working in the region.
Earlier, entrepreneur Sabah Yacob Dahan was found murdered February 19, after he was abducted from his shop five days earlier, added Barnabas Fund.
Christian students were also among the victims, including Wissam George, 20, who went missing on February 17 while on his way to the institute where he was studying to be a teacher. His body was found in the street that afternoon, riddled with bullets, Christians said.
A day earlier, two other students, Zia Toma, 21, and Ramsin Shmael, 22, were on their way to the local university when gunmen opened fire on them. “Zia was killed and Ramsin wounded. They had already been displaced from their homes in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, by the instability there,” Barnabas Fund said in a statement to BosNewsLife.
There was more bloodshed last month. On February 15 a Christian greengrocer, Fatukhi Munir, was reportedly gunned down in his shop in a drive-by shooting, a day after Christian Rayan Salem Elias was killed outside his home by armed assailants, according to rights investigators and local Christians.
“The concern of Christians in Mosul is growing in the face of what is happening in the city,” said Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako in published remarks. “The tension and struggle between political forces is creating an atmosphere of chaos and congestion. Christians are victims of political tension between political groups, but maybe also by fundamentalist sectarian cleansing.”
Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad, has been described as the most dangerous city for Christians. At least 275 Assyrian Christians have been murdered by Islamic militants since 2003, said the International Committee for The Rights Indigenous Mesopotamians.
“There are few places of safety left in Iraq for our brothers and sisters,” said Barnabas Fund’s International Director Patrick Sookhdeo.
“Almost all have left Basra and most have left Baghdad. Even in Mosul, where once Christians might have felt secure, they now live in fear of their lives and are fleeing in large numbers.”
There were at least an estimated 750,000 Christians in Iraq when the United States-led invasion began in 2003, but hundreds of thousands have since fled their homes and many stay in neighboring countries.
Christian groups say they hope the elections will lead to greater stability and a reduction of violence in Iraq, but there was little sign of that Sunday, March 7.