09/27/2023, 14.19
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Card Sako: condolences and closeness after hundreds die, are injured at a wedding in Qaraqosh

The Chaldean patriarch visits the Christian town in northern Iraq scene of a tragic fire, triggered by fireworks. At least 114 people have died and more than 200 have been injured.  The toll is “bound to rise because some of the injured are in very serious conditions.” Christians, Muslims, Arabs and Kurds showing solidarity amid the tragedy is a “sign of hope”.

Qaraqosh (AsiaNews) – It was a “real carnage,” said Card Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Baghdad of the Chaldeans, as he described to AsiaNews the horrific tragedy that took place yesterday evening in Qaraqosh, the most important Christian town in the Nineveh Plain, northern Iraq.

The disaster unfolded during wedding celebrations. Suddenly, those present were caught unaware by a huge fire that broke out inside the hall.

"The provisional toll is at least 114 dead and over 200 wounded,” the cardinal said by phone, “but it is bound to rise because some of the injured are in very serious conditions.” Some sources put the number of wounded at 500.

"I saw in person the large hall where the feast took place. Nothing is left; everything has been destroyed; it is clear that the structure was not up to standard,” the patriarch added.

"I met a priest, whose name is Petros, who lost at least 10 members of his family in the accident. His nephews died, still children, brothers. A tragedy.”

For the primate, what happened is a “catastrophe". He personally expressed solidarity and closeness to the victims and their families at a troubled moment for the Chaldean Church with the transfer of the patriarchal see, a move that has affected the entire Christian community.

"The wounded are treated in hospitals in Mosul and Erbil, but what is impressive is the number of victims, very high,” Card Sako lamented. “This is the first time that we have such a high number of deaths in our community. The [2010] massacre at the cathedral saw about 50 deaths; here, the number is twice.”

Nineveh Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaq told Reuters that the fire broke out around 10.45 pm yesterday local time, taking by surprise people who were celebrating.

The incident has shocked Qaraqosh, the most important Christian town in northern Iraq. Quickly, the festive mood was replaced by a silence mixed with grief and mourning as people try to figure out what caused the fire.

This morning Nineveh Governor Najim al-Jubouri said no final casualty figures are available yet, which suggests the death toll is expected to rise.

The fire hit and partially destroyed an event hall. In a statement, Iraqi civil defence authorities said that fireworks used during the celebration may have caused the fire.

Fireworks are a common practice at wedding celebrations in Iraq. Early reports indicate that at least a thousand people were inside the hall when the fire broke out.

Things were made worse by the use of flammable material in the structure, as well as poor safety standards, like emergency exits, which proved fatal.

Highly flammable prefabricated panels inside the hall, which clearly violated the most basic safety standards, fuelled the fire.

Pictures and videos taken by those present after the fire show rescuers climbing over the rubble, including a collapsed roof and charred metals (and bodies). One video shows burning panels falling from the ceiling and guests trying desperately to flee the flames.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation and urged security forces to provide relief, as truckloads of aid and medicine arrive in Nineveh from Baghdad and other provinces.

Although the final impact of the tragedy will not be measured for a while, the Chaldean patriarch sees a silver line and some hope. “I see solidarity among Iraqis, by everyone: Christians, Muslims, Kurds, Arabs who have expressed closeness, offered to take in those in need, who have sent aid.”

Card Sako, who is expected in Rome for the Synod in a few days, will stay for a few more hours in Qaraqosh "to attend the funeral of a first group of people, at least 40, although it is still difficult to identify the victims because the corpses are charred. At present, the fate of the newly-wed is unknown.”

Solidarity among Iraqis “is a sign of hope, but we must not wait for carnage to occur; it must be strengthened every day, in everyday life, which is also the way to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.”

In Iraq, safety standards are poorly enforced in both construction and transport. After decades of strife, the country's crumbling infrastructure is regularly the scene of fires and fatal accidents.

In July 2021 a fire in the Covid unit of a hospital in the south caused the death of more than 60 people. A few months earlier, in April, oxygen cylinders exploded in a fire at a Baghdad hospital, killing more than 80 people.

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