On Sunday 31 October, gunmen wearing suicide vests and wielding automatic rifles beseiged the church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. The attackers entered the Chaldean Catholic church at dusk, during Mass. They shot a priest and herded the congregation into a hall, holding 120 people hostage for several hours.
Father Wassim Sabih, one of two priests killed, was pushed to the ground as he grasped a crucifix, pleading with the gunmen to spare the worshippers. He was shot, his body riddled with bullets. A total of 52 people were killed and 67 injured, some by grenade, making this the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began in 2003.
The stand-off ended at 9pm when security forces stormed the church. Dozens of Iraqi commandos were involved, some dropping from helicopters. Afterwards, Christian lawmaker Younadem Kana said officials were not sure whether some worshippers had been killed by security force bullets or by the militants. He condemned the operation as “hasty” and “not professional.” Security officials’ accounts contradicted each other.
The gunmen who carried out the attack were from a group affiliated to al-Qaeda, called Islamic State of Iraq. One of the gunmen rang a TV station on his mobile phone during the stand-off, demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners held in Iraq and the release of two women allegedly detained by the Coptic church in Egypt.
On Sunday a warning was posted on the website of Islamic State of Iraq, threatening that it would “exterminate Iraqi Christians” if the women were not freed. They were wives of Coptic priests and allegedly converted to Islam in order to divorce their husbands – the Coptic Church bans divorce. Extremists claim that the women are being held against their will in Egypt. Islamic State of Iraq gave the Coptic church a 48-hour deadline to release the women. Egyptian authorities refused to react to the demands, beyond condemning the attacks.
Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, hundreds of Christians have been killed and several churches attacked. Following the US-led invasion, Christians have been viewed as Western collaborators, with the worst attacks taking place in the northern city of Mosul, which has the highest proportion of Christians in Iraqi cities. Between half and two-thirds of the 2000-year-old Iraqi Christian community has fled, either leaving the country or taking refuge in the Kurdish region. Iraqi Christians numbered between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2003 but their number has shrunk to about 500,000.
(Associated Press, Assyrian International News Agency, Irish Times, New York Times, Reuters, World)