While Americans were jittery over a new threat from mail bombs, Iraqi terrorists struck at Catholics in Baghdad, killing scores — many of whom were women — attending evening Sunday Mass in the cathedral of the Syrian Catholic Church.
The slaughter highlights the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and the unwillingness or inability of the Iraqi government, U.S. troops and the international community at large to ensure the safety of innocent minority populations in the war-torn country. That had also been the message of bishop after bishop at a recent unprecedented Synod for the Middle East at the Vatican: Without more support, the presence of Christians in those lands is at risk of extinction.
Oddly, U.S. military commanders viewed as a success the bloody rescue attempt by Iraqi commandos backed up by U.S. forces and aerial support. The “operation by the [Iraqi security forces] is proof of their competency to provide professional security to the citizens of Iraq,” a military statement said.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance was a high-profile Christian target, one that had already been hit by a car bomb in 2004, killing two people and wounded 90. After that, it was surrounded by concrete barriers, razor wire and security patrols.
But less than two months before the attack, one of the two priests killed, Father Thaer Abdal, worriedly told a reporter for The New York Times that he had a premonition of more anti-Christian violence in the wake of a Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Quran.
“He lives in a society that protects humans and religious beliefs,” Father Abdal said. “Why would he want to harm Christians in Iraq? This is dangerous.”
(Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, in a post on his website, lamented that the vitriol of U.S. national discourse might have contributed to the violence, and called on Catholic Americans to lead the way in “[toning] down the level of hatred in their comments and conversations.” “Others should not be vilified or punished for holding an opposing view.”)
The Syrian Catholic Church is no recent or Western transplant in Iraq. With roots in the early Christian Church in Antioch, Syria, and centuries of history in Iraq, its liturgy uses Aramaic, the language Jesus himself used.
According to reports, the attackers, from an extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq, shouted “kill, kill, kill,” when they entered the church, and immediately shot dead one priest on the altar. In an Internet statement, the group called the church a “den of polytheism,” referring to Christian belief of three persons in one God.
Pope Benedict XVI condemned the “absurd violence,” and said it “is even more savage because it struck defenseless people, gathered in God’s house, which is a house of love and reconciliation.” He urged individuals, governments and international institutions to join forces to work to end violence.
The U.S. government has a moral responsibility, because of its influence in Iraq, to ensure that ethnic and religious minorities are protected from both Muslim and ethnic extremism. U.S. Catholic leaders must also raise their voices in defense of Christians in Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt who are under constant pressure.
Those Catholics killed in Baghdad as they gathered at the Eucharistic table are martyrs for peace. They were killed because of their faith. May their blood bring peace to their land, and renew our resolve to pray and work for peace, starting with those closest to us.