WASHINGTON (BP)–An attack on a Baghdad church that left more than 50 people dead and at least 60 wounded should serve as a reminder that Iraqi Christians continue to face a grave terrorist threat, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Nov. 3.
On Sunday morning, Oct. 31, heavily armed suicide bombers raided a Syrian Catholic church, Our Lady of Salvation, in an upscale neighborhood and began executing people, including two priests, in what has been described as one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.
The next day, the Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility. The Washington Post said the siege suggested that al-Qaida in Iraq remains capable of carrying out mass casualty operations.
“We recognize the promptness with which the Iraqi government responded to the hostage situation at the church, and it is most unfortunate that all of the hostages could not be safely rescued and that security forces were killed,” USCIRF chair Leonard Leo said.
“In the wake of this brazen and senseless attack, we urge the Iraqi government to proactively heighten security at Christian and other minority religious sites and the United States government to increase its support of such efforts.”
Leo also called on the Obama administration to acknowledge the sectarian aspects of the conflict in Iraq and ensure that U.S. policies protect religious minorities.
“Congress already has taken this step, as reflected in House and Senate resolutions that call on the U.S. government to, among other measures, work with the Iraqi government to enhance security at places of worship and ensure that members of ethnic and religious minority communities do not suffer discrimination and can effectively convey their concerns to government,” Leo said. “The administration should act accordingly as quickly as possible.”
USCIRF has recommended since 2008 that Iraq be designated as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations because members of the country’s religious minorities, including Christians, continue to suffer from targeted violence, threats and intimidation.
Such groups also experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization and neglect, threatening their very existence in Iraq, USCIRF said.
Also in response to the church attack, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, expressed outrage.
“We are stunned by the barbarity of this onslaught. We share the grief of the survivors, the families of victims and our many friends in Christian communities worldwide,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, assistant dean of the center, said.
“But we are also outraged by the indifference of the international community. The only thing more outrageous than the systematic slaughter of families gathered in their place of worship is the overwhelming silence at this heinous act,” Cooper added.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the center’s director of interfaith affairs, said, “As Jews, over the course of history we have learned what it is like to be a targeted and powerless minority.
“In 2010, Christians in their historical communities in Iraq and throughout much of the Middle East are victims of a pattern of incitement aimed at destroying or driving them out of societies they have contributed to for centuries. Americans should reflect on the pathological intolerance that too often targets Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Turning a blind eye to such attacks will only mean the deaths of more innocents, and in many cases, the disappearance of ancient communities.”
In the attack, 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 a stock exchange across the street and blowing up their own car, according to the Associated Press. More than 100 people reportedly were attending mass.
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-Qaida prisoners.
“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” a local source told Compass Direct News.
About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up, Compass reported. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead were killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began.
The dead included 12 policemen, two priests and a third who died later at a hospital, along with five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church, Compass reported.
Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack — some of them were not Iraqi, and an Iraqi police commander was detained Nov. 2 for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.
“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass. “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 slain priests, said the attack will drive more Christians from Iraq 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,” Casmoussa told Compass. “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 leave?”
Compass described the attack as the deadliest since Islamic extremists began targeting Christians 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.”
Memorial services were held Nov. 2 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,’ etc., but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”
Emanuel Youkhana, a clergyman in another Iraqi Catholic community, the Church of the East, told Compass that just as the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, Christians “are in their last stage of existence” in 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, Compass reported, with 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,” Youkhana said. “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. …
“We can’t make political demands,” Casmoussa, the bishop, told Compass. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”
Following the funerals Nov. 2, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200, Compass reported.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach and editor Art Toalston, with reporting by Damaris Kremida of Compass Direct News.