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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004 09:16 am

“Their worst nightmare”

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Sister Beth Murphy (standing third from left) with other members of the Dominican order in Mosul in January
PHOTO COURTESY OF SISTER BETH MURPHY

Sister Beth Murphy remembers well the Chaldean cathedral in Baghdad. It was modest in both size and architecture, she says, void of the garish ornamentation usually associated with Christian cathedrals.

Murphy, who is communication coordinator for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, a Roman Catholic religious order, attended a service there last December. L. Paul Bremer III, then-administrator of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, was supposed to attend, drawing much of the country's Christian leadership to the ceremony.

"That day the church was absolutely packed to the gills," says Murphy, who remembers the tanks that rolled through the streets, the snipers positioned on the roofs of several buildings, and the fear felt by many in attendance that terror might strike.

"It was one of the most stressful liturgies I've ever attended in my life," she says.

Bremer never showed, and the ceremony was carried out in peace. But as of Sunday, Aug. 1, the Chaldean cathedral and four other Iraqi churches were reduced to smoldering heaps of rubble after a series of deadly car bomb explosions.

The U.S. military reported at least 11 people killed and more than 40 injured in the blasts, which occurred during a 30-minute period that coincided with Sunday evening services. Four churches were struck in Baghdad and one in the northern city of Mosul; police defused two more bombs that evening outside other churches.

The incidents marked the first time Christians were directly attacked since the American occupation. Christians comprise less than 5 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

"This is their worst nightmare," says Murphy. "It was so carefully organized and synchronized across the country; it is truly terrifying."

Murphy was glued to the television and Internet after hearing of the attacks, but information arrived slowly. She phoned American friends who traveled with her to the region, but none had additional information.

So she called a hospital in Baghdad, and was relieved to find that the nuns she has gotten to know personally during her three recent visits to Iraq all were safe.

But Murphy takes little solace in their having survived Sunday's bombings, and has sent an e-mail to hundreds of Dominican leaders nationwide, who in turn will likely forward its urgent message to thousands of their followers.

In it, she writes:

"The Pentagon released a report saying that their early estimates of the number of insurrectionists in Iraq could be wrong. Instead of the 5,000 they had originally suspected, they now think there are 20,000, mostly non-Iraqi terrorists in the country.

"If that is the case, it is very unlikely there will ever be a military solution to Iraq's security crisis. Until the international community is willing to address the root causes of the violence, including the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, there will not be peace in Iraq or a solution to the increased terror threats we are now experiencing in the United States.

"If you haven't done so recently, this might be a good time to contact your elected officials with a plea for a new approach to the conflict."

Contact Sister Beth Murphy at SBMurphy@spdom.org

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