BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – For the first time in their lives, Widad Mikho and her sister Neshwan will not attend Mass today, too frightened after a series of church bombings across Baghdad.

But fear will not keep Dana George away. “It would be better to die in church than anywhere else,” she said.

Iraq’s Christians, increasingly targeted by insurgents, are fleeing Baghdad for the safety of the Kurdish north or neighboring Syria and Jordan. After Saturday’s bombings of five churches – which damaged buildings but caused no casualties – Christian leaders fear more will leave.

But the exodus is temporary, insist many, because they are not selling their homes and property. They will wait it out and return when the situation improves.

Pascale Isho Warda, a Christian who is interim government’s minister for displacement and migration, estimated as many as 15,000 out of Iraq’s nearly 1 million Christians have left the country since August, when four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were blown up in a coordinated series of car bombings.

Saturday’s “explosions will no doubt push people to immigrate,” said Father Raphael Qutaimi, acting bishop of the Syrian Catholic Church. “But this country has been ours for thousands of years. Our ancestors shed blood defending it. We mustn’t leave it.”

He and all the dozen Christians interviewed Saturday said the attacks were not the work of Muslim Iraqis, but foreigners.

“The foreigner is trying to create division and enmity between Christians and Muslims. We must stand hand in hand and heart to heart and not give the outsider cause to divide us,” Qutaimi said.

“They want us to leave Iraq,” said Surah Samaan, a 25-year-old lab technician, referring to the attackers, who she believes are Arabs linked to al-Qaida.

But Yonadem Kana, secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said the general security situation of the country had chased away many Christians.

He said more than 100 Christians had been murdered after the U.S.-led war. About 200 more have died in the general violence that has gripped Iraq.

Insurgents have been targeting many Iraqis who are seen as helping the U.S.-led forces, and extremist militiamen have often targeted people in occupations seen as breaking Islamic rules.

Never in Iraq, Kana said, had a church been attacked, not since the days of the Mongols, who massacred 800,000 of Baghdad’s residents and destroyed the city in the 13th century.

Neshwan Mikho, 46, has been cleaning the Saint John’s Church in the working class neighborhood of Bataween every Saturday for the past seven years undeterred by rain, sandstorms or even shellings. “But today, I was afraid to go when I heard the news,” she said.

She said she and her sister, Widad, 60, who lives with her, will not catch the 6:30 a.m. bus that takes them to church every Sunday.

“I am sad in my heart because tomorrow I will not be attending mass,” said Widad, a Chaldean Christian. “They are denying us what is most important thing in our lives.”

She has been living in a state of near paranoia since the August church attacks. At night, she said, she wakes up four or five times to look out the window to make sure no one’s standing outside.

“We are targets from both sides – for being Iraqis like everyone else and for being Christians in particular,” said Widad, a retired nurse.

She and her sister would like to leave for good for Australia, where their two other sisters live. But they cannot afford it.

“What can we do? They are shelling our church, they might break into our homes tomorrow and the next day force us to wear the veil,” said Widad.

Bassem Samir Khouri, a legal adviser in the interim Education Ministry, will also skip Sunday mass but is staying put in Iraq.

He said throughout the years, Iraq’s Christians had kept to themselves trying to keep out of trouble. With the country in turmoil now, Muslims are asking why the Christians aren’t taking sides on the question of Fallujah or other trouble spots where anti-American insurgency is strong.

Dana George, 60, would like to leave the country – if only for the sake of her three grown children. But her husband won’t hear of it. So for now, she will continue going to her St. Matthew’s Church despite the attacks.

She feels indebted to God for protecting her and her family all those difficult years under Saddam. “Now I feel it’s my duty to pay him back,” she said.

Samaan said Christians are vulnerable in predominantly Muslim Iraq.

“There’s nobody to help us. Muslims have the support of their tribe. The Pope is our only power, but doesn’t help us,” she said.

She said she would like to leave Iraq for good.

Where would she like to go?

“Anywhere – out of the Arab world – where they all think we are infidels,” she said.

AP-ES-10-16-04 1358EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.