11/15/2010, 00.00
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Witness to the carnage, stories from those who were inside the Baghdad church

The ‘Little Sisters of Jesus’ in Baghdad have spoken to people who survived the 31 October carnage at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They share their stories in a letter that we are publishing in full.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – An al-Qaeda commando stormed Baghdad’s Syriac-Catholic cathedral on 31 October. The terrorists eventually blew themselves up, sewing death and destruction. A total of 52 people died and dozens more were wounded. Here is a letter by two nuns who were witness to the carnage.

Dear brothers and sisters everywhere,

We want to start this letter by thanking everyone for the messages of communion and solidarity we have received. Many natural disasters have occurred at this point in time around the world, causing more victims than in our case. However, they were not caused by hatred, and this makes all the difference. Our Church is used to being hit hard, but this is the first time it got so many, so violently and so savagely. It is also the first time inside a church; usually bombs are set off outside, in the forecourt. Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one of three Syriac Catholic churches in Baghdad, catering to Syriac Christians originally from Mosul or three Syriac Catholic villages near the city: Qaragosh, where our sisters Virgin Hanan and Rajah Nour come from, Bashiqa, where Mariam Farah comes from, and Bartola. Thank to God, none of them had relatives killed or seriously injured in the attack.

The church was attacked on Sunday, 31 October, past midday, right after Fr Tha’er’s homily. Fr Wasim, who is the son of a cousin of Sister Lamia, was hearing confessions in the back of the church. Fr Raphael was in the choir. The attackers were all young, 14-15-year-olds. They did not wear a mask but had machine guns and hand grenades. They also carried explosive belts. When they arrived, they opened fire right away, killing Fr Wasim who was closing the church’s door, shooting in every direction, telling people to lie on the floor, and not to move or shout. Someone was able to send some text messages with a mobile phone, but the attackers shot at anyone who was using a mobile. Fr Tha’er was killed at the altar in his liturgical vestments, still celebrating the mass. His brother and mothers were also killed. Then the slaughter began. We cannot tell you what everyone told us. Even crying children were killed. Some people fled to the sacristy, and blocked the door. Yet the attackers went up to the church’s balcony and threw hand grenades through the sacristy windows, which are high up.

All leads to think that it was a well-planned attack, and that they had inside help. How could they otherwise get through the police line (which blocks the road that leads to the church), and know how to get to the balcony, etc.? They fired at the air-conditioning machines so that gas could be released and kill anyone who was nearby. They fired at the cross, laughing, taunting people: ‘Tell him to save you!’ Then, they recited the call to prayer ‘Allāhu Akbar, la ilaha illa allāhu . . .’. When the soldiers were on the verge of coming in, they blew themselves up.

It took two hours for the army and aid to arrive. The Americans were above in helicopters but the [Iraqi] army is not trained to handle such situations. It was not quite sure what to do. Why did it take them so much time? It was all over by 10.30, 11 pm. That is a long time and for us many people bled to death or died from their injuries. The wounded were eventually taken to some of the local hospitals whilst the dead were moved to the morgue.

In the aftermath, people began drifting towards the church to find out what happened to their relatives. However, the building itself was off-limits and so many started going from hospital to hospital searching for their loved ones. We saw people doing the rounds until 4 am, until they found those they were looking for at the morgue.

Funerals were held the next day in the nearby Chaldean church. It was full, it was quite a sight. There were 15 coffins lined up in the choir section. Other victims were buried in their home villages, or separately, according to each case. Christian communities were represented at the ceremony. There were government representatives as well. Out patriarch spoke; so did a government spokesperson and a cleric who heads an Islamic party, Moammar el Hakim.

The prayer was very dignified, no noisy demonstration. Fr Saad, who runs the church were the funerals were held, helped people pray as they arrived at the building ahead of the ceremony. Two young priests were buried in the crypt of devastated church.  Before their bodies were interred, they were carried through the church in a final farewell.

Initially, we knew nothing of the victims. We did not know any of them personally, except for Fr Raphael, a very old priest. We went to visit him in the hospital. We also saw other patients. Families took us from room to room; hospital staff would point out to us the wounded. Chance had it that they were all women and girls, with gunshot wounds, not like in bomb explosions where people lose an arm or a leg. We were beside them but did not talk much. They wounded were the ones who talked or their families, each going through what happened, describing it. Since the attack occurred on a Sunday, at Mass, whole families had members wounded or killed, some trying to shield their children. We were struck by their calm and their faith when they told us their story. We felt they were like people from another world, and that in that moment nothing more matter to them than the close encounter with the Lord. Their minds were empty of thoughts, they just prayed, for five hours.

On Friday afternoon, young members from other parishes came to help us remove the debris and clean up a little big. The next Sunday, 7 November, all Syriac and Chaldean priests in Baghdad who were freed celebrated Mass in the empty and devastated church, using a makeshift altar. Because the Mass had not been announced, few people came. We did not go since we too did not know about it.

However, it was very moving, with a surge in faith and a show of determination, especially among the priests who are still in Baghdad. They want to throw us out, exterminate us, but we are here and here to stay. After 14 centuries, they cannot erase us. The history of Iraq’s Christians goes a long way back: persecution, martyrs, and expulsions. Lest we forget, psalm 69, says, ‘More numerous than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.’ Above all, our thoughts are about Jesus, who was hated for no reason, as he went by and did good deeds. Let us end this letter with the cry of the three-year-old child who saw his father killed and cried out, “enough, enough”, just before he, too, was killed. Yes, we too, along with our people, cry out ‘enough is enough’.

Your Little Sisters from Baghdad, Alice and Martine

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