Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church

Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.

ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.

A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.

“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”

The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.

Report from Compass Direct News

New Dimension in India’s Anti-Christian Violence Feared

Concern grows that Hindu terrorists could become more apt to target Christians.

PUNE, India, November 5 (CDN) — After the recent arrests of numerous Hindu terrorists for exploding bombs, authorities increasingly view Hindu rightwing extremists as a threat not only to Muslim and Christian minorities but also to national security.

Historically Hindu terrorist groups have traded blows with India’s Muslim extremists, but because of a perceived threat from Christianity – as one Hindu extremist leader expressed to Compass – many analysts believe Hindu terrorists increasingly pose dangers to Christians as well.

Police in Goa state arrested two members of Hindu terrorist group Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) on Saturday (Oct. 31) for their alleged role in an explosion that took place near a church in Margao on Oct 16. Christians, which make up more than 25 percent of the 1.3 million people in Goa, were apparently not the target of the explosion, which occurred accidently when two members of the Sanatan Sanstha were trying to transport explosives to a nearby location on the eve of the Diwali Hindu festival, according to DNA newspaper.

Nevertheless, the incident served as a wake-up call to Christian leaders and others who fear Hindu terrorists could take greater aim at the Christian community. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said that while terrorism was not new for rightwing groups, some of the extremist groups had “metamorphosed into fully fledged terrorism squads on classical lines – cells with local leaders, supply lines, bomb-making experts, and clear linkage with the intellectuals and motivators in the RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] hierarchy.”

Suresh Khairnar, a civil rights activist who has conducted nearly 100 fact-finding trips on communal incidents, told Compass that Muslims may be the main target of Hindu terrorist outfits, but “there is no doubt that they pose a threat to the Christians also.” He added that these Hindu groups also launch attacks on Hindus from time to time – masquerading as Islamist groups to create communal unrest, as well as to confuse investigating agencies.

Asghar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, concurred that Christians have increasingly become a secondary target for rightwing Hindu terrorists behind Muslims, who form 13.4 percent of the population.

“Christians, on the other hand, are only 2.3 percent,” said Engineer. “And because of their engagement with education, medicine and social work, it is difficult to promote anti-Christian sentiments.”

A former inspector general of police of Maharashtra, S.M. Mushrif, also said that while Muslims are the prime target of Hindu terrorists, attacking Christians also helps the Hindu assailants to portray themselves as “working for a Hindu cause.”

Members of suspected terror groups are known to have attacked Christians. On June 27, Shailendra Chauhan, alias Uday Singh – suspected to be a close aide of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, the prime suspect in a September 2008 blast in Malegaon, Maharashtra – was arrested for allegedly killing a Christian priest in Noida, a satellite town of Delhi. The 25-year-old Chauhan was also accused of vandalizing a church building in Sangam Vihar in Delhi in October 2008, according to The Times of India.

The AICC’s Dayal added that Islamic groups are the immediate target of Hindu terrorist groups, “but once the terror gangs of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist ideology] taste blood, it is easy to predict that they will swing into action against any perceived enemy target.”

How Alleged Terrorist Group Views Christians

The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of Mumbai is investigating powerful bomb blasts in Malegaon town, Maharashtra, allegedly carried out by members of the Hindu nationalist Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India) in September 2008. Compass spoke with the president of Abhinav Bharat about the alleged terrorist group’s attitude toward Christians.

The Malegaon blasts near a mosque killed six people and injured more than 100. The ATS arrested 11 people, including a serving officer of the Indian Army, from the Abhinav Bharat and other rightwing outfits.

The president of the Abhinav Bharat, Himani Savarkar, told Compass that members of her organization had been falsely accused, saying “The government is lying about their involvement. There is collusion between Muslims and the government.”

Asked if only Muslims were a threat to Hindus, she said, “There is danger from both Muslims and Christians, because of conversions and terrorism.”

Conversion represents a threat in that people converting to Islam change their loyalties from India to Mecca, while the loyalties of converts to Christianity shift from India to the Pope, Savarkar said. She also spoke of a more direct threat in Christianity – “Muslims want to kill the kafirs [unbelievers], and even Jesus asks in the Bible to kill all those who do not believe in Him” – and it is not known how many other Hindu extremists share this fallacy.

The number of Hindus, she added, “is slowly reducing, and one day we will become a minority in our own nation. We do not have any other nation.”

Savarkar, niece of Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who killed Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, said that in her view the main reasons people convert away from Hinduism are poverty and illiteracy.

“They do not know what they are doing,” she said. “We have to awaken Hindus. Hindus need to be made aware of the threats.”

Violent Despair

The use of bombs is a sign of frustration among extremists, said civil rights activist Khairnar, referring to the two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate. The BJP, which ruled the federal government from 1998 to 2004, has lost both the 2004 and 2009 general elections.

“They are now exploding bombs because they know they cannot succeed democratically,” he said, though he added that bomb-making per se was not a new development. “Even Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, launched several bomb attacks before finally succeeding in assassinating him.”

In the case of the Malegaon blasts, Dayal said that the involvement of Hindu religious leaders and former army personnel indicated that terror attacks by rightwing Hindu groups were well planned. Security analysts warn that the extremist groups must be prevented from graduating to bigger terror groups.

On Oct. 21, the Mumbai Mirror daily quoted an ATS officer as saying Hindu extremist groups “are putting up a mild face as an organization while their members are detonating bombs. It’s only a matter of time before they begin to acquire better technology and more lethal bombs. Their influence is growing; there are several politicians and even ex-policemen who owe allegiance to them. They can be dangerous if not stopped now.”

O.P. Bali, former director general of police of Maharashtra, told Compass that until 2003, the year he retired, extreme Hindu nationalist groups like the Bajrang Dal mainly used weapons like sticks, tridents and knives.

“Bomb-making is a newer development, and they are still learning,” Bali said. “Considering the way some local Islamist groups have graduated from making and detonating of small bombs to bigger ones, the efforts of rightwing groups must be nipped in the bud.”

Hindu/Muslim violence has a long history. In 1947, when India became politically independent, British colonial India was divided into “Hindu-majority” India and “Muslim-majority” Pakistan. The partition resulted in the killing of around 1 million people – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim – in violent clashes mainly during the mass migration of around 14.5 million people from India to Pakistan and vice versa.

Engineer said the common notion that increasing modernization in India would put a halt to the growth of extremist groups was mistaken.

“Extremism is a reaction to modernization, and therefore such groups will grow even bigger in the future.”

Dayal seconded Engineer, saying the rightwing extremist groups were trying to keep pace with Islamist groups.

“Fortunately, in most areas, government vigilance, civil society and good relations between communities have kept these terror groups at the margins,” Dayal said. “But with the growth of parties that use identity-based divisive issues such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party, with the apathy of government in BJP-ruled states, and with the middle-class support base for them, I fear such Hindutva terror groups may grow. That has been the historical experience in Western Europe and elsewhere.”

When suspects in the Malegaon blast were formally charged in January 2009, ATS officials told the court that the alleged terrorists’ goal was formation of a Hindu nation – and that the suspects planned to approach Israeli intelligence for help in combating Muslim extremists if the need arose, according to a Jan. 21 article in The Hindu.

Following numerous arrests, The Times of India daily on Oct. 21 quoted senior police officials as saying that Maharashtra was fast becoming a “hub of rightwing organizations’ terror activities.”

“The youth are being indoctrinated by fundamentalist organizations,” an officer told the daily. “The state should act quickly to control rightwing terror.”

Report from Compass Direct News