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

Christians Concerned over Acquittals in Orissa, India Violence

Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”

Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.

Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.

“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.

Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.

“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.

The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.

“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.

Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.

Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.

The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.

When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.

Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.

Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.

The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.

“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.

During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.

The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.

Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.

Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.

Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.

“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”

Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.

He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.

Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.

“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”

Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.


First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.

Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.

He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.

Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.

Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.

The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.

Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.

Report from Compass Direct News