Iraq: A survivor of the attack in Baghdad tells her story
On October 31, 2010, fifty-three persons were killed in an attack perpetrated during Mass by an Islamist commando in the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Several men armed with submachine guns and grenades stormed and seized the building, holding the assembly hostage for more than five hours, summarily executing the priests and the faithful and wounding 67 other persons more or less seriously. A group affiliated with the al-Qaida movement claimed responsibility for the attack, alleging that the Coptic Church of Egypt was holding Muslims imprisoned in the monasteries of that country.
Among the dozen persons who sustained no physical wounds, two sisters from the same family spoke before a video camera, thus giving precious testimony. Since Iraqi television refused to broadcast it, a Christian Lebanese network, Télé Lumière du Liban, made it public and posted it on the Internet. We reprint here the transcript of the remarks by the female student (approximately 25 years old) who lost her brother and her mother in the attack. Sitting on a sofa beside her father and her sister, quite shocked, she recounts, after a fashion, what she experienced during the evening of Sunday, October 31, 2010.
“The ceremony started at 5:00 p.m. At 5:15, after the reading of a passage from the Bible and the beginning of a prayer, some terrorists stormed the church. We heard shots outside. I do not know how many of them there were exactly, but the crowd walked away from the entrance and toward the altar before lying face down on the floor. Four men came near us, they came from Arab countries but only one of them had an Iraqi accent…. First they killed the deacon who was reading the Gospel. Then Father Wasseem came to try to calm the situation. They immediately killed him by shooting him down. Right after that they also killed Father Thaer who was in the same place.
“I came with my sister, my brother, my mother, we were a whole group of parishioners. When the terrorists came in, everyone was separated. They began to shoot at everything and every one. They killed people in an arbitrary manner. And then they saw the cross… They cried: ‘Infidels! Allah ou akbar!’ One of them was standing right next to me; I even felt his weapon against my feet. I was waiting for him to kill me.… But it was the young men who were all killed. They did not leave a single young man alive. My mother had been placed with some other parishioners in the sacristy.… Although the room was small, there were about 80 persons.… Father Raphäel was also in this small room. They opened the door and tossed some grenades….
“And then one of the terrorists said to me: ‘You are infidels, you will go to hell while I will go to paradise.’ One terrorist, a Syrian, demanded that a woman come and make a call with her mobile phone. I got up because I did not know what to do. He said to me, ‘If you do not move, I will kill you.’ I then moved next to him. He put a grenade in my hand and I spoke on the telephone. It was the press. He ordered me to say that they were doing nothing to us. But as I was very afraid, I did not say what he asked me to say. Everyone was dead. I saw their corpses in front of me. The terrorist then said: ‘You will not be spared, you Christians, you are infidels, you venerate the cross, but God is one, do not venerate the cross!’ They then shot at the statue of Christ, which fell to the floor. They destroyed everything in the church. And then the terrorist killed my brother while his three-year-old son was at his side yelling: ‘Stop! Stop!’ I could not even take him in my arms….
“Next to my brother, there was also a woman who was bleeding profusely. She asked the terrorist: ‘Kill me, please, do not let me suffer any more.’ He answered her: ‘No, suffer; that way you will experience hell on earth and after your death.’ And he repeated: ‘You are infidels, Allah ou akbar!’. And I, then, prayed the rosary, with my head bent down towards the floor. A terrorist came and asked me: ‘What are you praying? What do you venerate? Do you venerate Christ?’ And then, some grenades exploded and we truly had the impression that the church was going to collapse on us. I myself absolutely did not think that I would survive. I prayed as if I was about to die. It is Our Mother who saved us.”
In the edition dated November 12, 2010, Le Figaro likewise published quotations that revealed the barbarism of the assailants. A young woman recounted:
“They began to shout and to insult us: ‘Christian dogs, you are all going to die because you are infidels, you are going to hell and we to paradise! Allah Akbar!’ They immediately killed the persons in the first row, then the priest attempted to intervene in order to quiet them and he was executed too. I had four of the terrorists in front of me. I saw their hatred in their faces. By the end of one hour, they began to kill all the men, then the children, my brother was taken then machine-gunned against the wall. They laughed while continuing to insult us! … Then, one of the two, seeing that my father was only wounded, finished him off. He attempted to protect my three-year-old nephew under his body, but they took the child and shot a bullet into his head…. I prayed to Mary to protect us…. Then the army arrived, the terrorists had no more ammunition, nor grenades, they then blew themselves up. The detonations were so powerful that I thought there was an earthquake, that the church was going to fall down on top of us…. They were the devil, I can say that I have seen him….”
This taking of hostages was followed by new lethal attacks against homes of members of the Christian community in Baghdad on November 10. Six persons died and 26 others were wounded. According to an official of the Ministry of the Interior, two mortar shells and ten home-made bombs were aimed at Christian homes in different quarters of the Iraqi capital, between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. That evening, three houses belonging to Christians in Mansour, in the western part of Baghdad, had been the target of bomb attacks, leaving three wounded.
Already closely watched under the regime of Saddam Hussein, during which the apostolate and conversions were forbidden under pain of death, the Christian community of Iraq lives in terror since the invasion conducted by the United States in 2003. The Eastern Church, present in Iraq since the early days of Christianity, nevertheless sees its members leaving their native land every day, with the Christian population decreasing from 800,000 to 500, 000 over the course of the last seven years. “The people suffer so much from fear. There is rage and distress, and they do not know where to turn. I have only one message: please pray for us. This is truly a very difficult time. It is chaos,” declared Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Arbil (in northern Iraq) to the international Catholic relief agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Several demonstrations of support were organized in Europe, gathering thousands of persons in Belgium, in Sweden, and in France, which is the only country to have welcomed Christians wounded in the terrorist attack. In its online edition dated November 15, 2010, the Journal du Dimanche collected the testimonies of some recently arrived Iraqis. Among them was
Najlla, whose brother, a priest, died as he read the Gospel. “In the street, it’s horrible,” she confided. “We are forced to wear the veil. There are abductions, murders. Even the life of children at school becomes impossible. They are treated like infidels, above all the little girls. Before, under Saddam Hussein, we were citizens like the others. Today, they want our death in Iraq.”
For his part, Jamal, whose mother was hit by a bullet in the abdomen, tells of a hellish daily life: “In the street, you hear them insult Christ and the Virgin Mary. Someone tells you that he is going to kill you. That they know you, that they know where you live, where you work. You can no longer trust anyone.”
As early as November 1 the pope had responded, after leading the Angelus on Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, by launching an appeal to denounce the attack: “I pray for the victims of this absurd violence, which is even more ferocious as it has hit defenseless persons, gathered in the house of God, which is house of love and reconciliation. I express, moreover, my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, which has been hit again, and I encourage all pastors and faithful to persevere in fortitude and in the firmness of hope.” –What sort of interreligious dialogue is it, then, if Christians have to choose either the suitcase or the coffin? (Sources: apic/Le Figaro/Le Parisien/Le Journal du Dimanche; Télé Lumière du Liban – DICI no. 225 dated November 20, 2010)
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