An Iraqi Catholic Church leader denounced recently the assault on a landmark Assyrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad which left 52 dead.
Emmanuel III Delly, Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, decried the attack--considered the bloodiest attack on Iraqi Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country--on Our Lady of Salvation Church. Delly called for stepped up security not only for Iraqi Christians, but for all of the country's citizens, according to Reuters.
About 100 parishioners were held hostage for four hours by 15 armed gunmen, leaving 52 killed and 67 wounded. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown Iraqi-led terrorist group (linked to al Qaeda) claimed responsibility, The New York Times said.
Some terrorists said they were avenging a scrapped move by a U.S. pastor of a small church to burn the Quran, and demanded the release of two Iraqi women prisoners, the Guardian said.
Delly told Reuters, "We denounce the killing of (this) large number of innocent people. What I have asked for before and what I'm still asking for is that protection must be provided immediately for all believers and all people without exception," Reuters reported. Delly said this after he visited the church, which was spattered with blood, flesh, hundreds of bullet holes and casings. Pews were askew from the raid.
An unnamed American official told The New York Times that the Iraqi police entered the church when they were convinced the assailants had started killing hostages. He said the toll would have been worse if the police had not acted when they did.
Delly told Reuters, "What happened in the church is tormenting for us. We feel resentful for what happened against innocent Christians as equally we feel sorry for what is happening to our Muslim brothers." Police also died in the melee.
Taunts, random killings
Survivors told the Guardian the terrorists burst into the cathedral shouting, "All of you are infidels. We are here to avenge the burning of the Qu'rans and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt."
According to the New York Times, Father Wassim Sabih was pushed to the ground as he grasped a cross and pleaded for the worshippers to be spared, then was riddled with bullets.
They taunted churchgoers, shot statues and windows, and killed people randomly before they shot hostages en masse as the Iraqi army swept into the church. Ban Abdullah, 50 said, "They seemed insane." Her daughter, Marie Freij, was shot in the leg and lay in a pool of her own blood for over three hours. "I thought I would make it, but even if I didn't, I was in the church, and it would have been O.K.," she told The New York Times.
The terrorists said, "We will go to paradise if we kill you, and you will go to hell." Mona Abdullah Hadad, 62, who had to lose part of her kidney because of her wounds told the Guardian, "We stood beside the wall and they started shooting at the young people. I asked them to kill me and let my grandson live, but they shot him dead and they shot me in the back."
Another priest, Rafael Qutaimi, managed to lead some 60 people to a room in back. They put two bookshelves against the door. Gunmen who found them tried to break in. when they couldn't, they tossed four grenades into the window killing four and wounding several more, The New York Times said.
Madeline Hannah, 33, whose 10-year-old son was shot in the back, told the Guardian, "They said it was 'halal' to kill us. They hated us and said we were all going to die." Ghaswan Salah, 16, said, "I saw them put the explosive belts on their body. It was the last thing they did before the army came in."
The Iraqi government claims the attack had foreign support. Several witnesses told the Guardian that some gunmen spoke in a non-Iraqi dialect. Others heard them mention the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group linked to global jihad causes which has targeted Christians and churches in the past, though on a smaller scale.
Iraq once had 1.5 million Christians out of the country's 30 million population. Because they are frequently targeted by militants, many have fled. Overall, violence in the country dropped sharply since 2006-2007, but there are worries that with an eight-month political vacuum and inconclusive elections, militants are exploiting the situation, Reuters said.
Furthering tensions are the failure of Shiite, Kurd and Sunni factions to agree on the shaping of the new government, and the reduction of U.S. forces pending their departure in 2011.