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

Turks Threaten to Kill Priest over Swiss Minaret Decision

Slap to religious freedom in Switzerland leads to threat over church bell tower in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.

Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.

“If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too,” one of the men told Akbulut.

The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.

The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.

There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.

Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.

“He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards,” he said. “I talked with him two days ago, and he said, ‘It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.’”

Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.

Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church’s Internet site, he said.

“We’re kind of used to that,” Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.”

Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah “who like to flex their muscles.”

“We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that,” Mattix said. “But the local police are taking great strides to protect us.”

Mattix said he also has “divine confidence” in God’s protection.

The European Syriac Union’s Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.

“When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there,” he said.

The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as “Islamophobia.” One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.

In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either “should not” or “absolutely should not” be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.

The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.

This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were “massacred” along with Armenians in 1915 killings.

In Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone recently dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.

At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.

“These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level,” Aygur stated in a press release. “Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs’ existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Troops of the guerilla Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have massacred over 900 people since Christmas in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, reports Catholic News Agency. The news reports from missionary media sources, which are not attracting attention in Europe and America, lament the inaction and “impotence” of the United Nations forces in the area.

Fides news agency reports that the LRA is a Ugandan group mainly composed of child soldiers kidnapped and forced into service. For decades the group has ravaged the land in northern Uganda and is active in Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

The armies of Uganda, Congo and South Sudan formed a joint military operation in late December 2008 to try to stop the LRA. They moved against the LRA general headquarters in the Garamba Forest in the Congo with the backing of the U.N. and the United States.

However, the operation failed to capture the guerilla leaders, who are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The LRA has responded with violence against Congolese civilians, sacking and destroying entire villages and killing entire families.

Fides, which is a missionary news agency, accused the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUC) of being “yet another one of the acronyms that has become synonymous with the impotence of the international community.”

Fides claimed that MONUC members seem to be “mere spectators in the massacres of these people whom they should be defending.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


At least two killed today, another succumbed to axe injuries Wednesday; 400 houses burned.

NEW DELHI, October 3 (Compass Direct News) – At least two more Christians were killed today in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district after Hindu extremists this week set fire to nearly 400 homes there and in Boudh district. A third man succumbed to axe injuries on Wednesday (Oct. 1).

Weeks after Hindu extremist violence erupted against Christians, this morning tribal peoples in Sindhipankha village killed Dushashan Majhi, a local influential Christian, first shooting him and them cutting him to pieces. Local Christian leaders reported that Majhi was a government servant working in the treasury.

The mob then turned on Sanyasi Majhi, also said to be Christian, who was with Dushashan Majhi. There were unconfirmed reports that a third victim was killed along with the other two.

A local Christian who wished to remain unnamed told Compass that after killing the two men, the assailants massacred cattle belonging to village Christians and burned Christian-owned houses. Sindhipankha is about seven kilometers (four miles) from Tumudiband.

Local news reporter Lalit Jena told Compass from Kandhamal that the attacks – which have continued unabated since Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the death of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23 even though Maoist militants admitted murdering him – involve women first ransacking the Christian homes.

“The modus operandi of the tribal mob is such that women go first and attack the Christian houses,” he said. “They ransack and rob the household’s gold and other jewelry, TVs and all that is precious. The men then follow and burn the houses. Lately it has been reported that now they are fighting among themselves for the booty.”

Jena added that tribal peoples who lived in poverty before the violence now have obtained many heads of cattle, including goats and cows, within a short span, as well as household goods.

“They may have no electricity in their villages, but one can see lots of television sets, nearly all of it looted from the Christians,” he said.


Axe Murder

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), Lalji Nayak, believed to be about 80 years old, died from axe wounds after a Hindu extremist mob attacked his village of Hrudangia the previous day. Nayak and 14 others were wounded, with Nayak struck between his neck and chest.

While three of the wounded received first-aid at a health center in Kandhamal, eight others, including Nayak and his wife Mandaki, were admitted to MKCG Medical College in Berhampur. At press time Nayak’s widow, who received an axe blow just below the ear, remained in the medical center with a serious head injury.

Local Christians in Berhampur wanted to give Lalji Nayak a Christian burial, but police did not allow it. Utkal Christian Council members B.D. Das and J.R. Patro expressed strong objections to the police action.

Nayak’s brother, Junas Nayak, was taken to Cuttack Medical College for gunshot wounds. He remained in critical condition at press time with multiple gunshot wounds, and according to Jena has a total of 13 bullets in him.

“Seven are on his left thigh, and six in his right hand, but the doctors have so far done nothing to remove them from his body, even though he has been admitted in the hospital since September 30,” Jena told Compass. “We are concerned that he may develop septic [shock or infection] because of the delay.”

In the attacks, an 8-year-old boy miraculously survived after being hit by an axe in the middle of his skull.

Two pregnant Christian women, Archana and Geeta Sahu, this week were brought from Kandhamal to Berhampur hospital, where they gave birth and were said to be out of danger.


Houses Burned

Nearly 400 houses were burned or destroyed in Orissa state’s Boudh and Kandhamal districts this week.

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), mobs set fire to dozens of houses in the Raikia area of the Kandhamal district. Yesterday the violence crossed over to neighboring Boudh district as about 100 houses were torched by mobs in at least nine villages. Worst affected was the village of Kantamal.

The burning of houses continued this morning, with more than 400 houses reported to have been either burnt or destroyed in Boudh and Kandhamal districts.

Police have reportedly arrested five people so far in connection with the burning of the houses in Boudh district.

Additional District Magistrate Mihir Chandra Mallik told reporters, that unidentified people set fire to over a hundred houses of Dalit Hindus in at least nine villages in Boudh district.

“We have set up a relief camp at Kantamal town to provide food and shelter to the people who have lost their homes,” he added.

The administration said that the motive for burning these houses was ethnic, as Kandh tribal peoples attacked Dalit Pana homes.

Area church leaders confirmed this, but one said on condition of anonymity, “First they were targeting Christian Panas only, but now even Hindu Panas are not being spared. All Hindus who have not joined the mobs in attacking Christians are also being treated in the same way as Christians.”

Both Dalit Pana houses as well as homes belonging to the Christian Pana community have been targeted in Boudh district, he said.

In Barakhama village near Kandhamal, Christians may move to the safer Daringbadi. A local pastor told Compass that Barakhama was also targeted last December, when around 400 homes belonging to Christians were burned and demolished.

“The same continues now,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The Christians love their homes, but it is just not safe to live here anymore, for the government has failed to protect us. The Christians in Barakhama have almost decided to move collectively to Daringbadi, which is at least a bit safer.”

It is estimated that around 500 Christian families will leave the village.


Nun Raped

Police have finally confirmed the rape of a nun in Kandhamal two days after the death of Hindu leader Saraswati.

A mob of around 40 men attacked the nun at K. Nuagaon village, where she and a priest, Father Thomas Chellantharayil, had taken shelter after their center was attacked. The mob allegedly dragged her and the priest to a deserted office of a Non-Governmental Organization, where she was stripped and raped. The priest was reportedly doused with gas and beaten as he tried to stop the attack on her.

Police have arrested four suspects in the rape. Juria Pradhan, 52, his 22-year-old son Kartik Pradhan, Biren Sahu, 35, and 26-year-old Tapas Patnaik were arrested in connection with the assault and rape of the 29-year-old Catholic nun on Aug. 25.

The inspector-in-charge of Baliguda police station has since been suspended in connection with the incident. The Orissa government has also ordered a probe, 39 days after the initial complaint.

District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar this week told reporters that a medical examination report confirmed that the nun was raped.

The Hindustan Times reported today that although the report was filed weeks ago, police obtained the medical examination report only two days ago following media reports and the efforts of Sister Nirmala, Superior-General of the Missionaries of Charity, who wrote to the state seeking justice.

“A police official said they were busy in maintaining law and order and could not find time to look into the case,” the national daily reported.


Attempts at Law and Order

Since Wednesday (Oct. 1), 46 people have been arrested on charges of rioting in Kandhamal district. A police official said that they had arrested more than 300 people in the past month.

Christian leaders attributed the sudden arrest of 46 people in the last two days to new state Director General of Police (DGP) Manmohan Praharaj, who took over from Gopal Chandra Nanda, who retired on Tuesday (Sept. 30).

Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad International President Ashok Singhal did not take kindly to the latest arrests.

“The new DGP is indiscriminately arresting leaders of Hindu organizations that are not related to any case,” he told reporters this week.

Nearly 53 companies of paramilitary forces have been appointed in Kandhamal district, and curfew was still imposed. The central government sent 1,000 paramilitary personnel in the form of 10 Central Reserve Police Force companies on Wednesday (Oct. 1) to Kandhamal district. Local sources said 10 more companies were expected by Sunday (Oct. 5).

The central government has come down heavily on the Orissa state government. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil wrote a strongly worded letter to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday (Oct. 3) asking him to take effective measures and provide security for the Christian community in the state.

“Merely continuing to ask for additional forces after every few days cannot be the solution,” Patil wrote. “The state government has to implement overall strategy for creating an environment of security.”

The letter came hours after the Union Cabinet expressed grave concern over the situation in the state, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directing Patil to present a report on the situation at the next cabinet meeting.


Peace Rally in New Delhi

In New Delhi, nearly 15,000 Christians joined in a peace march in solidarity with the victims of the Orissa and Karnataka violence yesterday.

The peace march was the culmination of the week-long sit-in organized by the Christians of Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region) beginning Sept. 26 to protest atrocities on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. The peace march took place on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation.

Many national leaders, including central ministers Lalu Prasad Yadav and Oscar Fernandes, addressed the gathering at the Dharna (sit-in). Yadav, the union minister for Indian Railways, promised to personally meet with the prime minister and urgently discuss the matter. He said that he would “take up the anti-Christian violence in Parliament and debate the hatred of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] forces.”

Hindu leaders such as Swami Agnivesh addressed the peace march at Rajghat (Gandhi’s final resting place), saying that the “very killers of Mahatma Gandhi, are the same killers of Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country . . . The Hindutva fascists do not represent the peace-loving Hindu societies, rather they are damaging the Sanatam Dharma [eternal law] of Hinduism,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News