Iraq’s Christian community was in shock Monday after a church siege by Islamist militants during Sunday mass and a rescue attempt by Iraqi commandos left at least 58 people dead.
Officials said that in addition to the priests, worshipers, and security forces killed, 75 more people were injured after Iraqi special forces stormed Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church where gunmen wearing suicide vests were holding the congregation.
Church leaders blamed inadequate security by the Iraqi government for the deadliest attack in Baghdad since before March elections.
“If the sons of this country cannot live in peace then the situation is clearly unacceptable. Had we been provided with adequate security, this would not have happened,” Syriac church official Monsignor Pius Kasha told the Monitor.
As an elite commando unit under control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office stormed the church after a four-hour standoff, gunfire and explosions rocked central Baghdad on Sunday night. Witnesses and survivors say the attack started with a team of insurgents dressed in military uniforms killing guards at the nearby Baghdad stock exchange before they scaled the walls and started shooting inside the church.
The dead included two young Iraqi priests and a church deacon, as well as families attending Sunday mass at the church in the central Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, say church officials.
The Iraqi federal police and Army have been deployed outside churches during Sunday mass since a series of coordinated attacks on churches more than two years ago. On Sunday though, witnesses said there were no military or police vehicles deployed outside the church during the service.
Nearby residents described terrifying scenes unfolding into the night. Rajaa, a school teacher who did not want her last name used, says from the first floor window she could see four men in military uniforms get out of a black SUV and shoot at the stock exchange guards before jumping the wall into the church.
Three other gunmen in an ordinary car pulled up, she says.
“As soon as they jumped over the wall they detonated their car. Then all we could hear were shots and screams from inside the church,” she says. Authorities said two stock exchange guards and four passersby were killed in the initial attack.
Islamic State of Iraq claims responsibility
The gunmen were believed to have almost immediately shot one of the priests celebrating mass as well as several of the parishioners. An Iraqi television station said it had received a call from the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, claiming responsibility for the attack and saying they were demanding the release of prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.
Most of the casualties though were believed to have resulted when the gunmen detonated two suicide vests after Iraqi commandos blew off the doors and stormed the building.
"The men who carried out the attack were very organized – the way they entered … how well prepared and armed with machine guns, explosive belts, and everything they could need…. How they quickly closed the doors and shut in the faithful. Then the security forces came and … It was a real tragedy – so many lives lost ..." says Monsignor Kasha.
The attack, in the midst of a political deadlock which has left Iraq with no new government, could fuel the departure of more Christians from Iraq. More than half of the 800,000 Christian citizens here before the war are believed to have left the country.
“This is tragic for Christians and for all of Iraq,” says Chaldean Bishop Shlimon Warduni. “If we had a government and laws and people all over the world to help us it would be much better.”
US military praises Iraqi commandos
Iraqi authorities as well as the US military publicly praised the rescue attempt, despite the fact that more than half of the parishioners were killed or seriously wounded. Defense Minister Abdulqadir al-Ubaidi said the insurgents included foreign fighters who intended to kill as many people as possible.
“The operation was a success and many were rescued and we have one suspect in custody,” he told the Furat television channel.
“Last night's operation by the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] is proof of their tactical competency to provide professional security to the citizens of Iraq,” read a statement from the US military which emphasized that Iraqis were now in charge. “Since June of 2009 the ISF have been responsible for the security within the cities and Operation New Dawn has allowed US-Forces to focus on advising and training the ISF to continue honing their techniques to execute missions that protect Iraqi citizens.”
A US military spokesman said the US role was limited to providing an aerial surveillance feed for the operation but witnesses said a small group of US soldiers were on the ground.
Privately, one Iraqi security official suggested the Iraqi rapid reaction unit known as ‘the Golden’ force had gone overboard when they received intelligence that the insurgents were linked to Al Qaeda.
“When this information reached them, the forces quickly surrounded the church and entered with force, disregarding consequences to all who were inside the church. Their objective was to wipe out the armed group,” said the Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know what the armed group would have done to the civilians but it can’t be much worse than what that security force did.”
Residents questioned the lax security in a neighborhood with multiple police checkpoints meant to detect explosives.
"The shooting and the screaming is still in my ears,” says Rajaa. “How can such a car loaded with explosives and weapons, how can the people driving it fully armed pass the checkpoints?” says Rajaa. “This is not a question, this is an accusation.”
'We still have a mission here'
The Rev. Douglas Yousef al-Bazy, who worked with the slain priests, says he was stopped at a roadblock as he desperately tried to drive to the besieged church when he heard the explosions.
“It’s really terrible,” he says. “The people who did this want to kill the church – the priests who served them and the people and even the building. We lost our best friends there. When someone dies we say there is a reason, but actually when they are killed – when they kill young people, young priests, they are trying to kill our future.”
“Those who say we are safe, that we can live peacefully in Iraq, they are liars,” says Father Douglas, who was kidnapped in 2006. “But we will stay in this country because still there are Christian people here and we still have a mission here.”