By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (ANS) – A car bomb exploded outside a Catholic church in central Kirkuk, Iraq, early Tuesday, wounding at least 20 people, authorities said.
According to CNN, the attack took place in Kirkuk’s Shatterlo neighborhood around 5:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m. Monday ET). The network cited a police official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
CNN said the wounded included staff from the Holy Family Church and people with homes nearby. The Interior Ministry stated 23 people were injured.
The CNN report said police told the network the explosion damaged the church and a number of nearby houses. Kirkuk is an ethnically-divided city located about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad.
In the past few years, extremists have carried out major attacks against churches. An October 31, 2010 attack on the Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral, or Our Lady of Salvation Church, left 70 people dead and 75 wounded, including 51 congregants and two priests.
CNN said the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes a number of Sunni Muslim extremist organizations and has ties to al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the Baghdad church siege.
CNN expalined that religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, make up less than 5 percent of Iraq’s population, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Since 2003, attacks against these minorities by insurgents and religious extremists have driven more than half of the minorities out of the country, according to UNHCR statistics.
Ivana Kvesic, reporting for the Christian Post at www.christianpost.com , said that in a coordinated effort to generate fear among Iraqi Christians, the attack occurred in the ethnically- and religiously-diverse city of Kirkuk outside a Syrian Catholic Church on Tuesday around 6 a.m.
In an online report, The Christian Post said at least 23 people were wounded in the attack, mostly from surrounding homes. The church’s parish leader, Imad Yalda, was inside the church during the bombing and was also among the wounded.
Following the attack, two other car bombs were also found outside Kirkuk’s Christian Anglican Church and the Mar Gourgis church.
The bombs were defused by security forces prior to their explosion, the website said.
Kirkuk’s Deputy Police Chief, Torhan Abdulrahman said of the attack, “It was a coordinated attack to target churches at the same time.”
The Rev. Haithem Akram, of one of the targeted churches in today’s attacks said, “The terrorists want to make us flee Iraq, but they will fail. We are staying in our country.”
According to the Christian Post, Iraqi’s Christian minority, formally standing at around 1.4 million, has been significantly downsizing its presence in the country since the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003, with close to 1 million having fled to other regions in Iraq or leaving the country to seek refuge.
The website explained that Christians in Iraq are targeted predominately by Sunni extremists who find Christians in the country to be “non-believers.” Christian pastors in Iraq have spoken out against Christian persecution in their country arguing for more government support and protection.
Canon Andrew White, who leads the St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, has spoken out against the violence, but has also argued that the violence has only served to strengthen Christian unity in the country.
Violence directed at Iraq’s Christian minority hit an all-time high last October when 52 people were killed and dozens wounded in an attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church.
The website said an al-Qaida affiliated group claimed responsibility for the attacks that saw gunmen and suicide bombers storm the church and kill worshipers.
It was the most deadly attack on Christians in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country.
The wesite said that today’s attacks come on the same day that a Baghdad court convicted three Iraqis to death for their role in last year’s church siege.