They were in the middle of prayer as usual when gunfire erupted on the street outside the church in Baghdad early this week.
Father Thar advised everyone to stay seated and to keep praying, but Madeline Mikhal and others rushed from their pews.
Suddenly a large explosion rocked Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Bullets whistled by. Some worshipers ran to the church basement. Mikhal darted into the priests’ changing room. A barrage of bullets thundered in the main hall.
Many parishioners dived beneath the pews seeking cover. But the dozen or so gunmen, some wearing vests covered with explosives and carrying grenades and other weapons, took aim at the scrambling congregation.
“Those who couldn’t find a place to hide were killed,” Mikhal said.
It was a brutal attack.
Blood still smeared the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church on Monday. Scraps of flesh remained between the pews. It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003.
But for survivors, the tragedy went deeper than the toll of the human wreckage: A fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests had unraveled yet another thread of the country’s once eclectic fabric.
“We’ve lost part of our soul now,” said Rudy Khalid, a 16-year-old Christian who lived across the street. He shook his head. “Our destiny, no one knows what to say of it.”
But aside from this coverage on that day, there has been little media attention focused on this horrorific violence. The Christians being targeted are crying out for protection and relief. Even before this attack, Church leaders made public pleas for this besieged and dwindling community.
On October 15, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of Baghdad delivered one of the most memorable interventions during the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East– words made even more poignant by the October 31 attack on worshippers at his cathedral.
Here’s some tough reality:
Iraq, land of Mesopotamia, land of civilizations, where Abraham was born, where Ur, Babel, and Niniveh are, land of Holy Scripture, land of faith and of martyrs… Since Christianity spread there, realized despite the persecution by the Persians throughout the centuries, the blood of martyrs flowed and the Islamic influence covered it.
Today and since the Revolution of Abd el Karim Kassem, Iraq does not cease living a situation of instability of trials and wars. The last being the American occupation. Christians have always had their part in the sacrifices and tribulations: with the martyrs in the wars and all sorts of different hardships….
Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians.
We want to sound the alarm. We ask the question of the great powers: is it true what is said that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians and that Iraq is one of the victims?
Poignant, indeed, that this plea was delivered during the recent Assembly in Rome. The Iraqi Archbishop had said:
I think this Synod should study this subject with attention and should see what can be decided in writing to reach a solution for the situation existing in the Middle East.
Then came the deadly ambush assault, with searing images of murdered Christian worshippers. Somebody has got to do something.
Cardinal Francis George was more specific in his statement on behalf of US bishops:
…the synod called for the international community to help Iraq “put an end to the consequences of a deadly war and to reestablish security, something which will protect all its citizens.”
“Having invaded Iraq,” said Cardinal George, “the U.S. government has a moral obligation not to abandon those Iraqis who cannot defend themselves.” He adds, “We stand with the bishops, Church and people of Iraq in their urgent search for greater security, freedom and protection.”
Prior to the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, the conference of bishops raised moral questions regarding the maneuver, and later called for a “responsible transition.”
While they “welcome the end of U.S. led combat in Iraq,” the bishops are calling on the U.S. government to follow through on its responsibility to work with the Iraqi government to put an end to the violence. The U.S. bishops agree with their Iraqi counterparts that the United States failed to help Iraqis develop definitive ways of protecting themselves and securing safe living conditions, especially for the most vulnerable, including Christians, refugees and other minority groups.
“We offer our payers and solidarity with the suffering Christians of Iraq at this terrible time of loss and horrific violence,” said Cardinal George.
Prayers and public solidarity are an important start. But the ‘global community’ we increasingly hear that we are has to provide more, more voices and solutions and interim protections for these people.
Suddenly, that chilling line from the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ just came back to me, the one when Paul Rusesabagina implores the UN colonel and the photographer to inform the West and bring his people protection from the impending annihilation. And the response was: “I think that when people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, “Oh my God, that’s horrible,” and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.”
Please, God, don’t let that be so.