“We are being assaulted by dark powers. It is our fear that we will become extinct from Iraq,” said Bishop Yousif Habash of the Syriac Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, in Newark, N.J., in reaction to the murder of two priests and 51 parishioners by Islamic terrorists in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in central Baghdad. Prior to his installation as bishop in the United States in July 2010, Habash was pastor of Jesus Sacred Heart Church in Basra, a town just south of Baghdad and under the authority of the Syriac Catholic cathedral.
On Sunday, Oct. 31, just after 5 p.m., seven terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al-Qaida backed group, attacked the cathedral as Mass was being celebrated. Detonating a car bomb outside, the terrorists entered the church armed with guns, grenades and a PK machine gun, and began killing those inside.
‘Between two fires’
Bishop Habash said that he now feared for the plight of the Iraqi Christian refugees who face an uncertain future in the United States and other countries. “As Christians from ancient Mesopotamia, we have been called ‘the people between the two rivers,’” the bishop said.
“Now we are ‘the people between two fires: the Middle East and the West,’” Bishop Habash said.
The Oct. 31 attack was brutal even by the violent standards of present-day Iraq. A parishioner who managed to hide in the church during the nearly four-hour ordeal used a cell phone to call a friend, Yonadam Kanna, and plead for help. Kanna is a Christian member of parliament and the general secretary for the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
The motive for the attack, according to Kanna, was to stop the formation of a religiously plural parliament in Iraq. The formation of an effective central government in Iraq has been stalled since the divided national elections last March.
Kanna related how the terrorists killed Father Thaer Abdal, who was celebrating Mass when they invaded the church.
“They seized Father Thaer and said, ‘You are kafir (an infidel)!’ ‘No,’ Father Thaer said, ‘I believe in God.’ They said again, ‘you are kafir,’ and they threw him to the ground and shot him dead.”
Witnesses in the church described horrible scenes.
Speaking through a translator, George (not his real name), said: “They did not have mercy on anyone. They gathered some of us in one corner and shot five of us. The first victim was a child and his mother simply because he was crying in fear. There was [a] blood bath. Why do they do this to us? What was our sin? We just were worshiping God.”
Blind eye from United States
At around 9:15 p.m. Iraqi security forces stormed the church when one of the terrorists, reportedly a boy of 14 years, began spraying the hostages with machine gunfire from just behind the altar and then blew himself up with a suicide vest. All seven terrorists killed themselves or were killed by Iraqi forces.
Christians and Muslims around the world swiftly condemned the attacks, which Pope Benedict XVI called “savage” and “absurd.” Reaction among Iraqi Christians in the United States, most of whom have recently fled Iraq, leaving family behind, was a mixture of anger and frustration.
Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and executive director of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, a Chicago-based organization that helps Iraqi refugees, both Christian and Muslim, settle in the United States, said: “We are profoundly saddened by this massacre, and demand that the State Department help Iraq establish a solid government. Without a government, Iraq has become a free-for-all, one in which Christians are especially targeted by terrorists.”
Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America (CFA), the largest and oldest association of Chaldean organizations in the nation, said: “Iraqi Christians are being systematically murdered and driven from their homeland. This situation must, repeat must, be addressed by an international security coalition with members from Iraq, the U.S. and the U.N.”
The attack is part of the ongoing violence suffered by Christians in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Since then, hundreds of Iraqi Christians have been murdered and tens of thousands have fled Iraq.
Many Iraqi Christians feel their suffering is invisible to U.S. authorities. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement from the White House on the attack that did not mention the cathedral or even use the word Christian in condemning the violence.
Members of Congress, too, have taken notice of this “out of sight, out of mind” attitude by the Obama administration, and in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, criticized the administration for failing to acknowledge the specific targeting of Iraqi Christians by terrorists. The nine congressmen who signed the letter expressed their concern that the administration views attacks on Iraqi Christians as “only part of a broad pattern of generalized violence,” and they called on the State Department to take immediate action to protect Iraq’s Christians, “while a meaningful number still remain there.”
“These attacks were horrible, brutal,” lamented Taimoorazy, but she asked Christians not to lose sight of the larger picture.
“Christ’s crucifixion, too, was horrible,” she said, “but the message of the crucifixion is not the ‘horror,’ but instead Christ asking us a question: ‘For the sake of my suffering, what will you now do in my name?’ We must do something for Christians suffering in Iraq.”
Jeff Gardner writes from Wisconsin.
Syriac Catholic Church (sidebar)
St. Peter founded the Syriac Catholic Church, or properly the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch, after the ascension of Christ. Antioch, in modern-day Syria, is the city in which followers of Christ were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).
When St. Peter departed for Rome, he was succeeded in Antioch by St. Evodius, who was succeeded by St. Ignatius of Antioch in A.D. 67. St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred in Rome in A.D. 110. As he was being taken there, St. Ignatius wrote a series of letters to various Christian communities, the most famous of which are the letters to Christians at Smyrna, sometimes called the Letters to the Smyrneans. In these letters we find a defense of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the first use of the words “Catholic Church.”
Today the Syriac Catholic Church is led by Patriarch Ignatius Youssif III. In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Turks ruthlessly persecuted the Syriac Church, and the patriarch was forced to flee to Beirut, where he resides to this day. Syraic Catholics follow the Eastern rite of the Church, and though some, in northern Iraq, still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ, most speak and worship in Arabic.