Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church

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extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58

Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq this week to
bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian
Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s
dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants
stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening
mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at
the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to
The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending

A militant
organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in
Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the
sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the
release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church
in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the
release of al Qaeda prisoners.

appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a
local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security
forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants
blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been
killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing
hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from
gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead
included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing
and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors
source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the
Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing
until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges
Casmoussa told Compass that Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost
brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal
loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill.
They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the
Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who
knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more
Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are
wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them
don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who
doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families
that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not

The attack was
the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists
began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the
hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no
single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never
had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were
held  in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended
the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral
there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government
ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you,
we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation.
We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East said
that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five
years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not
surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five
years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians
from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country.
Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said
that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the
Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of
existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi
government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of
the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and
professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said
Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in
order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must
come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area,
like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was
watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians
are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give
confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated
that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country
since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people
will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure
Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot
confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the
north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with
the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander
was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make
political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian
demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the
funerals, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in
predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and
wounded nearly 200.

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