| Smoke billows around a church after one of the explosions in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Baghdad/Mosul, Aug. 1 (Reuters): Car bombs exploded outside at least five Christian churches in Iraq today, killing more than a dozen people and wounding many more in an apparently coordinated attack timed to coincide with evening prayers.
“We are expecting a huge number of casualties,” an interior ministry source said, adding there had been four blasts at churches in Baghdad and two in the northern city of Mosul. Police in Mosul said they knew of just one church attack there.
The Vatican condemned the blasts — the first attacks on churches during the 15-month insurgency — echoing concerns among Iraqis that they aimed to inflame religious tensions.
In the deadliest attack, a suicide car bomber drove into the car park at a Chaldean church in southern Baghdad before detonating his vehicle, killing at least 12 people as worshippers left the building, witnesses said.
The US military has warned that guerrillas opposed to the presence of more 160,000 foreign troops may try to deepen divisions between the country’s diverse religious communities in their campaign to destabilise Iraq. “It is terrible and worrying because it is the first time that Christian churches are being targeted in Iraq,” said Vatican deputy spokesperson Father Ciro Benedettini.
A US military spokesperson said three of the four attacks in Baghdad were known to be suicide car bombings.
An explosion at the Armenian church in Baghdad shattered stained glass windows and hurled chunks of hot metal. Another bomb exploded about 15 minutes later outside the nearby Assyrian church, where medics dragged a man from a car, his arm almost torn off.
“Worshippers were inside the church and during the service a bomb went off,” said Shakib Moussa Jibrail, a Christian who said his father had been inside the Assyrian church. “Now he is in hospital. His head was hit.”
An ambulance driver said two people were killed in the explosion at the Assyrian church and several wounded. US Colonel Mike Murray of the 1st Cavalry Division said at least 50 people had been wounded at the church, some seriously.
In Mosul, officials said at least one person was killed in a blast at a church and 15 wounded.
There are about 800,000 Christians in Iraq, most of them in Baghdad.