October 31, 2011

One Year Ago in Iraq

One year ago today in Iraq, 42 Iraqi Christians, two of them priests, were shot to death by terrorist gunmen in Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad.

A commemorative Mass was celebrated yesterday here in Rome in memory of those killed.

The Mass was celebrated at the Santa Maria della Concezione church, a Syrian-Catholic church in Rome, by Monsignor Mikael Al Jameel, representative to the Holy See of the Syrian-Catholic Patriarchate.

The homily was delivered by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches.

“Peace and forgiveness”

“The Church and the world cannot and must not forget,” Cardinal Sandri said in his homily. “We must remember, yes, certainly, but to offer forgiveness and to pray fervently for peace for the living and for the dead.”

Also present were Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, ex-Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, and Habib Al Sadr, the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, as well as many priests, nuns and students.

Sandri said he was united with the Patriarchs of the Oriental Churches, Syrian-Catholic, Maronite and Chaldean, who were today in Baghdad to attend a Mass of remembrance celebrated by Bishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman.

“May Christ’s love conquer death”

Coming three days after the day of dialogue for peace held in Assisi on October 27, Sandri invoked the gift of peace: “All the Syrian-Catholic communities,” he said, “are united with us and with many other communities. Together let us pray that the love of Christ may always conquer death.”

Sandri recalled that Pope Benedict XVI, in his Angelus message of November 1 last year, the day after the massacre, denounced “this absurd violence, all the more ferocious in that it struck helpless people, gathered in a house of God, which is a house of love and reconciliation.”

“Let us pray that the sacrifice of these our brotehrs and sisters may be a seed of peace and of true rebirth and may all those who have at heart reconciliation, fraternity and peaceful living together find motive and strength in ithis to do good.”

At the end of the Mass, Father Mukhlis Shasha, friend of the two martyred priests, Thair Saad Allah and Waseem Sabeeh, spoke about the way they died.

He also said that the Christians in Iraq are still the objects of attack, and that this has led many to leave the country.

Here below is another report on the Mass by Alan Holdren of Catholic News Agency, who works here in Rome.

On anniversary of cathedral massacre, 42 Iraqis remembered as martyrs

By Alan Holdren

Oct. 30 Mass at Santa Maria della Concezione

Rome, Italy, Oct 30, 2011 / 04:07 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On the first anniversary of the massacre at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, the 42 worshipers killed were remembered as martyrs and their intercession was sought on behalf of Iraq’s still besieged Christian community.

Three children, two priests and a pregnant woman were among those killed when five Islamic militants linked to the terrorist group al-Qaida scaled an outer wall, entered the church and opened fire on Oct. 31, 2010.

Today, in an intimate memorial Mass held at Rome’s Santa Maria della Concezione Church, Catholics prayed for the living — the “persecuted Iraqi Christians … that they never cease to give testimony to the truth, though it may cost their lives.”

Despite the sadness of the anniversary, the tone was hopeful.

During his homily, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican official in charge of Eastern Catholic Churches, spoke of the sacrifice of the deceased. “Our brothers by a mysterious way passed us in the chase for the award and the goal of our path, Christ himself,” he said.

The Mass was celebrated in the Syro-Catholic rite, but Iraqi Chaldean as well as Egyptian and Israeli priests came to show support.

Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, patriarch emeritus of the Syro-Catholic Church, and Archbishop Mikael Al-Jamil, the Syro-Catholic procurator in Rome, led the celebration.

Later, worshipers remembered the horrible events and spoke of their hope for an end to the persecution of Christians in Iraq.

An Iraqi priest, Father Mukhlis Shisha told CNA that his two best friends — both priests — were killed in the attack.

“Their martyrdom was more valuable for having taken place within the church. It is more beautiful to be killed within the church than outside it,” he said.

Large posters emblazoned with the images of the two priests adorned either side of the altar during the celebration.

“Fr. Thair Sa’adallah was just beginning his homily after having read the Gospel,” Fr. Shisha remembered. “When he saw the terrorists enter, he took the Gospel in hand and held it up, saying, ‘In the name of the Gospel, leave them and take me. Me for them!”

The attackers quickly killed Fr. Sa’adallah before turning on the rest of the congregation. Witnesses say they aimed particularly to kill the young men of the parish. In addition to the dead, more than 100 people were wounded.

Fr. Wasseem Sabb’ieh was hearing confessions at the time of the attack. He managed to rush two families to safety through a secret door before turning back to face the attackers.

“Before he closed the door, one of the people he helped said to him, ‘Father, leave them and come with us and you will be saved,’” Fr. Shisha recounted. “He answered, ‘I won’t leave them like this,’ and he locked the door.”

Fr. Sabb’ieh proceeded directly to the attackers, shouting: “What do you want from us?”

He was killed with a bullet to the head while at the same time one of the attackers detonated a suicide bomb beside him.

Fr. Shisha is very aware of how close he himself was to death. He would have been at the Mass had he not been called back to his hometown in northern Baghdad to speak at a conference that day.

Stories of those saved are remarkable.

A little girl –- Fr. Sa’adallah’s niece –- survived the attacks in a cupboard, where she was hidden during the more than four hours of terror. Many took refuge in the sacristy. Another 80 were saved as they packed themselves into a tiny side room that measured just 9 feet by 12 feet.

The memory of the dead is still graphically present in the cathedral. The bloody handprint of a pregnant woman who was killed has been conserved as a reminder of her martyrdom.

“There are too many stories to tell,” Fr. Shisha told CNA. “Essentially, those who died, who lost their lives in the church gave themselves for the cause of the others.”

“My life is Christ”

In some ways, he said, his priest friends were prepared for the moment.

Just one day before the attack, Fr. Sa’adallah sent a text message to all of his friends which read simply: “My life is Christ.” Fr. Sabb’ieh was known to say out loud to God, “My heart beats with your love. May my tongue speak your glory.”

Their lives were taken by five radical Muslims, two from Syria and one each from Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

The Islamic State of Iraq, a reported al-Qaida associate, claimed responsibility for the massacre.

During the attack, Fr. Shisha received cell phone calls from people trapped in the cathedral. They said the attackers told them they were “infidels” and that they “had to be killed.”

The terrorists killed themselves, but others who planned the attacks were later detained. Fr. Shisha was given the chance to speak with them, and he asked them simply, “(w)hy did you do this?”

“Their response,” he said, “was that you (Christians) are all ‘kafara,’ that is, ‘infidels,’ and we (Muslims) cannot coexist with you.”

According to the Vatican’s representative to Eastern Catholics, the attack should not be forgotten.

“The memory of the past is very important for the future of the Church in the Middle East,” Cardinal Sandri told CNA.

“This situation in the Church is difficult — being a minority and being the object of terrorist attacks and violent acts even within the very church walls. But, it has also brought with it, on the other hand, the fact that the blood of those who have died will certainly be the seed of hope and life for the future.”

Today’s Mass, Cardinal Sandri said, honors the memory of the victims and expresses hope for better days.

“Today’s reflection is to pray for them but at the same time to ask that they – through their death, with their oblation – intercede for the Church in Iraq, so that there might be peace in Iraq and all the Middle East and that there might be greater awareness to security,” he said.

“In the future, we cannot forget the blood of the martyrs which has to give us a feeling of hope, hope against everything. Christ will conquer all,” he added.

The cause for the beatification of the martyrs is now being pursued in Rome.


Open Questions

Certain facts about the attacks have never been made clear.

The number of gunmen involved is not certain; different accounts put the figure as low as six and as high as 15 gunmen.

Who the gunmen were is not certain; an eyewitness said the attackers shouted at them saying “All of you are infidels. We are here to avenge the burning of the Qur’ans and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt.”

The US military said it suspected the attackers were al-Qaeda operatives because of their “tactics, techniques and procedures.”

An official from the church later said: “The men who carried out the attack were very organized: the way they entered… how well-prepared and armed with machine guns, explosive belts, and everything they could need… how they quickly closed the doors and shut in the faithful.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Bloom of the US Army said the raid was a “robbery gone wrong. We’ve seen them resort to robbery to get financed. It has been very challenging for them to get outside financing, so they are resorting to small, petty crimes to try to finance themselves.”

Abdul Qader al-Obeidi, Iraq’s defence minister, said one of the attackers’ phone calls were “fully intercepted” and that he believed he and his fellow gunmen were not Iraqis because he spoke classical Arabic “perhaps in an attempt to conceal his identity.”

Hussain Nahidh, a police officer, reported that the suicide vests brought in by the attackers were filled with ball bearings, designed to kill as many people as possible when they exploded. Many people went to the hospitals “without legs and hands.”

A security spokesman in Baghdad, Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, said the attackers were dressed like guards working for a private security firm and also had fake IDs.

One of the questions about the attack was how such a large number of terrorists managed to reach a church in the heart of Baghdad without being stopped.

According to the SITE Institute (SITE stands for The Search for International Terrorist Entities; it is an organization that tracks the online activity of terrorist organizations), the Al-Qaida group called “The Islamic State of Iraq” claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s claim of responsibility also said, “Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing,” referring to calls for the Egyptian Coptic Church to release two wives of priests who were detained after they allegedly converted to Islam.

However, there is no evidence confirming this claim of responsibility.

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