A Great Silence greets the cries of Iraq's murdered Christians

religion | Nov 01, 2010 | By Robert Moynihan

On Sunday October 31 in Baghdad -- a week after the close of the Synod on the Middle East -- armed vigilantes entered a church during evening Mass, killed the priest and took 100 people hostage. In an ensuing battle, about 50 Catholics were killed, making this arguably the worst attack on Christians in Iraq since 2003

Where is the outrage?

The funerals will be on November 2.

Just a week after the close of a Vatican bishops' synod focusing on supporting the Christians living in the Middle East, a slaughter of Christians has occurred in Iraq.

The victims, Syriac Catholics, will be buried in Baghdad tomorrow — some 50 innocents, many of them women, one a priest killed while celebrating Sunday evening Mass.

(Here is a link to some pictures of the church and surrounding streets: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11664020)

"Absurd violence"

At the  November 1 Angelus prayer for All Saints Day, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the massacre:

"Last evening, in a grave attack on the Syriac-Catholic cathedral of Baghdad, there were scores of deaths and injuries, among them two priests and a group of the faithful there for Sunday's Holy Mass.

"I pray for the victims of this absurd violence, even more ferocious in that it has been inflicted upon defenseless people gathered in God's house, which is a house of love and reconciliation. I express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, now stricken again, and I encourage its pastors and faithful alike to be strong and firm in hope.

"Beyond these savage moments of violence, that continue to tear apart the peoples of the Middle East, I would lastly like to renew a heartfelt appeal for peace: it is a gift of God, but it is also the result of the efforts of men of good will, of national and international institutions. May everyone unite their strengths to end every act of violence!"

No one to defend them

Did all the talk that just occurred for two weeks in Rome -- eloquent talk, learned talk, sometimes enigmatic talk, sometimes emotional talk -- serve any practical purpose?

The Christians of the Middle East remain exposed to violence driving them from the region, and no one seems willing, or able, to protect them.

Not the Muslim government in Iraq.

Not the American-led military forces still remaining in Iraq.

Not the Christian communities themselves.

Do average Europeans and American Christians realize that their Christian brothers are fleeing the Middle East, where they have lived for nearly 2,000 years?

Do they realize that, soon, after nearly 2,000 years, there may soon be no longer any substantial Christian presence in the region where Christianity began?

What will be the result of such an exodus? When it is complete, only two religious groups will remain in the Middle East, confronting one another: Muslims, and Jews.

Funeral ceremony

The funeral ceremony of Father Thair Sad-alla Abd-al and Father Waseem Sabeeh Al-kas Butros (photo) will be held tomorrow in Baghdad in the Chaldean church of St. Joseph not far from the Syriac Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation, the scene of the massacre of dozens of people who were in it for the Sunday evening celebration of Holy Mass.

(Our Lady of Salvation is the cathedral church of Baghdad's nearly 9,000-member Syriac-Catholic community.)

"We still don't know who will celebrate the funeral ceremony," Bishop Shleimun Warduni, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar (the assistant of the Church's leader, Cardinal Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly) told journalists today. "There will surely be the patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Cardinal Delly," he said, "and Msgr. Georges Casmoussa, the Syriac Catholic bishop of Mosul, while we don't know if there will be Msgr. Athanase Mati Shaba Matoka, the Syriac Catholic bishop of Baghdad, who at the time of the attack had not yet returned to Iraq after the Synod for the Middle East in Rome."

Under increasing pressure

The Chaldean Catholics of Iraq, led by Patriarch Delly, numbered about 1.5 million souls in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. In the violence and chaos of the past seven years, the community has been reduced to less than 500,000, as Chaldean Catholics told members of the press during the Synod.

This is a decline of the local Chaldean Catholic population of more than 1 million.

These people have not been killed, they have left the country out of fear.

Do the Christians who have lived in that region for nearly two millennia not have a right to remain in their homeland?

They are being put under pressure, month in, month out, by acts of violence, by acts of terror, by financial pressures.

Here is a chart, from the BBC, of the main incidents in the past few years (this is only a small sampling of all the incidents that have occurred):

Attacks on Christians since 2003 in Iraq


August 2004 -- series of bombings targets five churches, killing 11
October 2006 -- Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, snatched in Mosul by group demanding ransom. Despite payment of the ransom, priest found beheaded, his arms and legs also cut off.
June 2007 -- Ragheed Ganni, a priest and secretary to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh, killed in 2008, shot dead in his church along with three companions.
January 2008 -- Bombs go off outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad.
February 2008 -- Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh kidnapped; body found in shallow grave two weeks later.
April 2008 -- Fr Adel Youssef, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, shot dead by unknown assailants.
February 2010 - At least eight Christians die in a two-week spate of attacks in northern city of Mosul.

Where is the outrage that this is occurring?

The Pope's Cry

When Pope closed the synod last week, in his homily in St. Peter's Basilica on October 24, he issued a powerful plea for peace in the Middle East — in the Holy Land, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Turkey, throughout the region.

"Conflicts, wars, violence and terrorism have gone on for too long in the Middle East," he said.

And he asked that international leaders work to end the conflicts.

"Peace, which is a gift of God, is also the result of the efforts of men of goodwill, of the national and international institutions, in particular of the states most involved in the search for a solution to conflicts," the Pope said.

He added: "We must never resign ourselves to the absence of peace. Peace is possible. Peace is urgent. Peace is the indispensable condition for a life of dignity for human beings and society. Peace is also the best remedy to avoid emigration from the Middle East."

And yet, despite his words, another tragedy occurred yesterday.

"Dear brothers and sisters of the Middle East!" the Pope said in front of the assembled bishops of the region. "May the experience of these days assure you that you are never alone, that you are always accompanied by the Holy See and the whole Church, which, having been born in Jerusalem, spread through the Middle East and then the rest of the world."

But the Catholics of Baghdad today do seem to be alone. Will anyone actually come to their defense?


What happened in Baghdad?


At least 52 people, including many women, were shot to death Sunday evening as security forces stormed a Catholic church in Baghdad to free about 100 church-goers who had been taken hostage by a group of gunmen, Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister Major General Hussein Kamal told reporters today.

He indicated that six attackers had also died in the fighting.

(Note: The following is based on BBC reports.)

Reportedly, the gunmen demanded the release of jailed "al-Qaeda" militants in exchange for the 100 hostages they had taken.

According to reports, a statement was posted on a militant website, allegedly run by the Islamic State of Iraq (a Sunni militant umbrella group in Iraq), claiming responsibility for the attack.

Negotiations abandoned

Residents of Baghdad's affluent Karada district, where the attack took place, first heard a loud explosion at about 5 p.m. on Sunday, believed to have been a car bomb going off at the scene.

About 100 people were inside Our Lady of Salvation for an evening Mass at the time.

The blast was followed by gunfire. A group of armed men attacked the Iraq Stock Exchange building, police said, and then took over the Catholic church just across the street, clashing with guards and killing some of them.

It seems the church was the attackers' real target, the BBC's Jim Muir said in Baghdad.

One eyewitness, who was inside the church, said the gunmen "came into the prayer hall and immediately killed the priest." The witness, who declined to give his name, said worshippers were beaten and herded into an inner hall.

There was an hours-long stand-off as security forces surrounded the building with helicopters hovering overhead.

The militants made contact with the authorities by mobile phone, demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners and also of a number of Muslim women they insisted were being held prisoner by the Coptic Church in Egypt.

But the discussions got nowhere, and the security forces stormed the church.

Witnesses nearby said they then heard two explosions from inside the church and more shooting. The gunmen reportedly threw grenades and detonated their suicide vests.

The precise death toll is not clear. General Kamal said 52 "martyrs" had died in the fighting, along with six attackers, though a police source earlier said 37 people -- worshippers, security forces and attackers -- had been killed.

The number of wounded is put at between 56 and 62 -- many of them women.

Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul-Qadr al-Obeidi said security forces approached the building at ground level and from the air.

"We took a decision to launch a land offensive, and in addition an airdrop, because it was impossible to wait -- the terrorists were planning to kill a large number of our brothers, the Christians who were at Mass," said Mr Obeidi.

"So the operation was successfully done. All terrorists were killed. And we now have other suspects in detention."

Witnesses say they saw US troops on the ground and US military helicopters hovering above the scene, but the extent of their involvement is not yet clear.

Many churches have been bombed in recent years -- including Our Lady of Salvation in August 2004 -- and priests kidnapped and killed, but there has never been a prolonged hostage situation like this before, the BBC correspondent said.

And now?

Throughout November 1, mourners carried coffins from the church and loading them on to vehicles taking them to a morgue. Most victims are to be buried on Tuesday.

Raed Hadi, who tied the coffin of his cousin to the roof of a car, said the raid resulted in a "massacre."

"We Christians don't have enough protection," he said. "What shall I do now? Leave and ask for asylum?"

Younadim Kanna, a Christian Iraqi MP, said the government had failed to protect its citizens, but added that the Christian community would not be intimidated by violence.

"Despite all of these terrorist attacks against the Christians, we are determined not to leave our country," he said.

In comments to Vatican Radio, an unnamed source in Iraq's Catholic leadership said that the siege "represents a new and terrifying change in strategy by terrorists... it means all Christian parishes in Iraq are in danger."

Baghdad Chaldean Catholic auxiliary bishop, Warduni, said that the country's already-embattled "Christian community no longer feel safe, not even in the House of God."

Warduni added: "This attack will have a very negative influence on those who until now had chosen to remain in Baghdad, with many saying they are ready to leave."

Robert Moynihan PhD is the editor of Inside the Vatican magazine.

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