KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - A car bomb exploded near a Catholic Church in northern Iraq on Tuesday, injuring at least 16 people in part of a coordinated attack on Christian places of worship in the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk, a senior police official said.
Police also found car bombs near two other churches in Kirkuk, but defused them before they exploded, the city’s Deputy Police Chief Major-Gen. Torhan Abdulrahman said.
The explosion blew out the windows in the Catholic church, used mostly by Syrian Christians, damaged the building and left it covered in debris, television footage showed. Outside lay the twisted black metal remains of the car bomb.
“It was a coordinated attack to target churches at the same time,” Abdulrahman told Reuters, saying 16 people were injured.
Hospital sources said they treated 23 people wounded in the blast, including some Christians.
Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the height of the 2006-2007 fighting between majority Shi’ites and once dominant Sunni Arabs, but bombings and shootings by insurgents and militias remain a daily occurrence.
Sectarian tensions continue to fester more than eight years after the U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s Christian minority, mainly living in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Nineveh province, have been targeted in the past.
Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, is also riven by political tensions — Kurds say the city is part of their semi-autonomous region, a claim disputed by the federal government.
Security around churches has been tightened since 52 people were killed last October when militants attacked Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church in Baghdad during mass. Security forces stormed the building.
Iraq’s minority Christians population has shrunk to about 850,000 from about 1.5 million in recent years, according to church estimates. Iraq’s total population is estimated at about 30 million.
Church officials believe hundreds of thousands have either left the country during of fled to other parts of northern Iraq.
Reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Writing by Aseel Kami; Editing by Patrick Markey