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(New York Times) – Top Muslim clerics and political leaders united Monday behind Iraq ‘s Christians, condemning the coordinated bomb attacks on five churches the day before as a dangerous escalation of the war and an assault on centuries of coexistence between Christians and Muslims here. On Monday, leaders from nearly every major Muslim group, Sunni and Shiite alike, spoke out forcefully against the bombings, in what amounted to a call for national unity against what they said were terrorists aimed at pulling the country apart. The most revered Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq , described the bombings as “criminal actions” and called on the new Iraqi government to end such violence. “We confirm the necessity of respecting the right of Christians and other religious minorities and their right to live in their country, Iraq , in security and peace,” Ayatollah Sistani, who communicates publicly only on matters he regards as vital, said in a statement. The Iraqi Christian community, concentrated around Baghdad and the Kurdish-controlled region in and around Mosul , is one of the oldest in the world, tracing its roots back 2,000 years. Most of its members are Assyrians, an independent Christian church, and Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize papal authority. Though subject to persecution throughout their history, they considered themselves generally well treated under the largely secular rule of Saddam Hussein, and some of them – notably the former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz – rose to positions of power.