Iraqis, Religious Leaders Try to ‘Get in the Way’ of Sectarian Violence

The following report from Peggy Gish, a Church of the Brethren member of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq, was taken from a CPT press release dated Feb. 25.

“An Iraqi human rights worker was interviewing members of our team for her radio show, when we heard the news. The Shi’a Al-Askari shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, had been heavily bombed early that morning. All around Iraq, groups of angry men gathered to protest or retaliate by attacking Sunni mosques and leaders.

“We heard that gun-battles had erupted in many Baghdad neighborhoods. Police began to close bridges. In a neighborhood where Iraqis of Palestinian origin live, two rocket-propelled grenades exploded. We talked on the phone with a Christian priest who had been injured in his leg by shrapnel when a group of men shot into the church building. We canceled later appointments for the day. Everywhere people feared the situation would escalate into sectarian war.

“Out on the streets people lined up at food shops to stock up supplies before they closed for the three “days of mourning” declared by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. He called on Iraqis to “close the road to those who want to undermine national unity.” Shi’a leader Ayatollah Sistani referred to the bombing as “Black Wednesday” and called for seven days of mourning. We bought an extra supply of food, water, and phone cards and then limited our going out the rest of the day. Some of us were able to use the limited electricity to send quick messages back home, asking friends and family to join us in prayer for the situation.

“The following day was calmer, but reports of the widespread violence were sobering. Sunni organizations said that ten Sunni Imams had been killed and 168 Sunni Mosques had been attacked. The forensic morgue in Baghdad received eighty new bodies, and in areas east of Baghdad, between forty seven and fifty people were killed. Even during the next day’s curfew, sporadic violence continued.

“The news that did not get widely circulated, however, concerned the many actions to demonstrate and foster unity. On Wednesday, Sunni and Shi’a marched together from the Al Mansour neighborhood to the Khadamiya district in Baghdad calling for peace. In another Baghdad neighborhood Shi’a residents protected a Sunni mosque. Sistani urged Shi’a not to attack Sunni Muslims or their holy places. Shi’a leader Muqtada Sadr also called for an end to the sectarian violence and commissioned the Mehdi Army in Basra to go to the Sunni mosques to protect them.

“Many here believe that those who bombed the shrine were trying to incite more division and hatred between Shi’a and Sunni. Some Iraqis speculate that US leaders encouraged the violence in order to discredit the Jaaferi government and pave the way for installing leaders more supportive of US policies. One Iraqi neighbor told me that behind the violence are all the leaders, Iraqi and American, who want to use civil unrest to grab more power.

“Sectarian violence has the potential of causing horrendous damage to Iraqi society. We are encouraged, however by the resistance here to that, among the leaders as well as the Iraqi people.”

Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), originally a violence-reduction initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, and Quaker), now enjoys support and membership from a wide range of Christian denominations. For more about CPT go to


The Church of the Brethren Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren General Board. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. To receive Newsline by e-mail write to or call 800-323-8039 ext. 260. Submit news to For more news and features, subscribe to Messenger magazine; call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.


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