At least seven churches in Iraq were bombed Sunday in what appears to be coordinated attacks on Orthodox Christians celebrating New Year's Eve.
Mortar shells, explosive devices and car bombs were used in attacks targeting churches and monasteries in Baghdad and Mosul, according to Dubai-based Khaleej Times newspaper. At least six people were wounded, including two guards, reported Voices of Iraq news agency.
In the explosion at Saint Maskinta Church in Mosul, the bomb destroyed the external wall of the church and caused panic among children and nuns inside where the church had an orphanage for girls.
"I'm very upset. That the explosions went off at the same time proves that this was part of a plan," said Mosul's Chaldean archbishop, Farac Raho, on the TV channel Ishtar, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA).
"Both our Muslim brothers and we had just celebrated Eid and Christmas at the same time this year and everything went well," he said, referring to the Gregorian calendar still used by the Eastern Orthodox Church where Christmas and New Year fall on a later date.
"But the opposition has never really stopped pointing their weapons at us…Iraq's government must immediately act against violence directed towards us Christians," the archbishop pleaded.
On Monday, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, condemned the attacks and expressed sympathy with the Christian "brothers."
"I stand with them against this brutal attack that turned happiness into misery and concerns," he said, according to the Khaleej Times.
"Iraqis have a lot more to do to free themselves from the phenomenon of violence and terrorism, despite indications of relative improvement to a level of security," according to Adnkronos International news site.
He called on Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to use "care and prudence to cure Iraq from this phenomenon."
Persecution such as church bombings, kidnappings, as well as general violence and instability has forced a disproportionate number of Christians to flee Iraq – nearly half of all refugees leaving the country are Christians, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Christians in Iraq, composed mostly of Chaldeans, accounts for less than three percent of the country's population. Today there are about 600,000 Iraqi Christians – down from 1.2 million before the 2003 U.S.-led offensive.
Many Christians in Iraq and abroad, as well as religious freedom advocates, have expressed concern of the extinction of Christians in Iraq – either through death or forced emigration – if more is not done to protect the powerless minority group.
"Many believe that it had become a little safer for non-Muslims in Iraq but now even those who held that hope have begun to waver," said Iskander Bikasha, an editor of the Iraq-focused news site Ankawa.com, to AINA. "It's not just churches that are being bombed but even monasteries and convents."
"It's a war but we are not at war," he added emotionally. "We are not a part of this war. We carry no weapons. We kill no one. We turn the other cheek. A day doesn't go by without us hearing reports about Assyrians, also called Chaldeans and Syrians, who have been killed."
But some Iraqi Christians are defying the violence by refusing to allow persecution to stop their worship service. At one of the bombed churches in Baghdad on Sunday, believers still met after the attack to hold the Epiphany mass.
"We have decided to continue to go to church, let them bomb us, we've had enough," said "Daniel" (name withheld for security reason) to AINA. "It's our country too. If they want to wipe us out, they'll be able to do it anyway. I will die proud," he said in defiance of increasing Christian persecution.
Christians are especially vulnerable in Iraq because they hold no political or military power. In October, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had vowed to protect and support Iraq's Christian community.