Monday, November 01, 2010

"Please Help Us! We Are Christians!"

The survivors of yesterday's carnage in Baghdad's Syriac-Catholic cathedral have begun to recount the "savage" attack -- the largest strike against Iraqi Christians of any kind since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Here, from the LA Times:
Around 5:20 p.m., as the Christian worshipers stood and recited "Upon this rock I will build my church," the gunfire started on the street outside.

Father Thar advised everyone to stay seated and to keep praying, but Madeline Mikhal and others rushed from their pews.

Suddenly a large explosion rocked Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Bullets whistled by. Some worshipers ran to the church basement. Mikhal darted into the priests' changing room. A barrage of bullets thundered in the main hall.

Many parishioners dived beneath the pews seeking cover. But the dozen or so gunmen, some wearing vests covered with explosives and carrying grenades and other weapons, took aim at the scrambling congregation.

"Those who couldn't find a place to hide were killed," Mikhal said.

She was among more than 70 people who pressed together in the priests' dressing room. The group blocked the door with a dresser, and knocked out the fluorescent lights and waited in the dark. One of the priests, Father Rafael, had taken shelter with them. Mikhal spotted Baan Selim, a relative through marriage.

"Oh Mary, Christ, God, please protect us," they whispered and sobbed....

For survivors like Mikhal and Selim, who swore Monday that they would never again step foot in an Iraqi church, the immediate goal was finding a way to leave the country. The place they loved, a place of faith and rebirth, their sanctuary, had been infected by Iraq's death and bloodshed.

An hour into the attack, militants inside the church roared, "God is great! God is great!" A fresh explosion jolted the building. Screams rang out.

Selim thought a suicide bomber had blown himself up. Mikhal was near Selim and tried to calm her with prayers. People started crying in their hiding place and the gunmen discovered them. Someone lobbed a grenade into the middle of the room.

The explosion left blood everywhere. Some people slumped to the floor. Father Rafael, who shielded Mikhal from the shrapnel, was badly wounded.

"He protected me," she said.

The priest, despite injuries that later required major surgery, remained standing.

"He was encouraging us," Selim said. "He told us to please pray. He never sat down."

Selim, Mikhal and the others started shining their cellphone lights at one another to look at the wounded among them. Some used their phones to reach family.

"Please call the government," Mikhal told her son by phone. "Please call Bolani [Interior Minister Jawad Bolani]. Please call [the Shiite parties] to help us, to save us."

Relatives told them by phone that they'd heard at least two priests were dead. But it was almost impossible to hear anything amid the screams and bursts of weapon fire.

Around 9 p.m., relatives warned by phone that they must lie down, the security forces were coming, they would storm the church.

Selim, Mikhal and the others tumbled over one another as giant blasts rattled the building. Elite security units swung by ropes from helicopters onto the church's roof and broke through the windows, the women said.

People cried, "Please help us! We are Christians!"

In the room, they tore white cloths and waved them as surrender flags, afraid the security forces would think they were the bombers.

By about 10 p.m., the Iraqi forces had opened the door to the dressing room and ordered the hostages up one by one. They stood with their hands in the air. The soldiers checked them for wounds, and led them out. The Iraqi officers guided them with small lights. Selim could make out the bodies by her feet.

"The soldiers tried to raise my head not to look at the ground and see the corpses. I felt I was stepping on bodies," she said. "I noticed the black robe of one of the priests."

On Monday, the women sat in Mikhal's apartment, decorated with paintings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

Selim vowed to leave for Syria or Lebanon or anywhere that would take her.
* * *
The death toll standing at at least 58, in the wake of the attacks a group calling itself the "Islamic State of Iraq" claimed responsibility for the siege; eight arrests were made earlier today.

On two hierarchical notes of interest, based in Lebanon, the sui iuris Syriac church in communion with Rome counts roughly 130,000 members worldwide, and is led by a cleric with strong US ties: prior to his election to its top post last year, Patriarch Ignace III Younan was Bishop Joseph Younan, named in 1995 as founding head of the Eparchy (Diocese) of Our Lady of Deliverance, based in North Jersey, but charged with oversight of the church's small diaspora across the whole of North America.

While many news reports have translated it as "Our Lady of Salvation," "Our Lady of Deliverance" is likewise the proper name of the Baghdad cathedral (the image at right was damaged in the attack).

As some have asked after its eparch, according to a Bob Moynihan brief earlier today, the head of the Iraqi capital's Syriac community of 22,000, 80 year-old Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka, remains in Rome following last month's Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. Still formally known to most of the rites as "Babylon," the Syriacs share Baghdad with communities of Latins, Armenians and, of course, the Chaldean Catholics native to the land.

In his intervention to the Vatican gathering -- of which Younan was one of the three co-presidents named by B16 -- Shaba Matoka eerily spoke to the bleeding his own cathedral would come to see:
Since the year 2003, Christians are the victims of a killing situation, which has provoked a great emigration from Iraq.. Even if there are no definite statistics, however the indicators underline that half the Christians have abandoned Iraq and that without a doubt there are only about 400,000 Christians left of the 800,000 that lived there. The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels. Churches were blown up, bishops and priests and lay persons were massacred, many were the victims of aggression. Doctors and businessmen were kidnapped, others were threatened, storage places and homes were pillaged...

Perhaps the acuity with which Christianity was targeted has been lightened during the last two years, but there still is the fear of the unknown, insecurity and instability, as well as the continuation of emigration, which always makes this question arise: what is the future of Christian existence in this country should this situation continue, more so because the civil authorities are so weak. The tears are continuous between the different religious and political composing elements, as well as external influence by external powers, especially neighboring countries.

Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians.

We want to sound the alarm. We ask the question of the great powers: is it true what is said that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians and that Iraq is one of the victims?