Iraqi Christians worship again in massacre cathedral

11.jpgBy Jacques Clement (AFP)
BAGHDAD — Iraqi Christians on Sunday reaffirmed their faith in the face of Al-Qaeda, as 200 people celebrated mass in a bloodstained Baghdad cathedral where militants massacred 46 worshippers a week ago.

“The church is built on the love, the peace and the blood of the martyrs, not on the sword,” Father Mukhlas Habash told parishioners gathered around a cross of burning candles, traced out on the floor of an otherwise bare nave.

The candles illuminated pieces of paper with the names of the 44 worshippers and two priests who were killed last Sunday after Al-Qaeda gunmen stormed the Syriac Christian cathedral in the heart of Baghdad and seized hostages.

By the time the drama ended after Iraqi forces raided the building, dozens of people had died, including Taher and Wassim, two priests who heroically tried to plead with the gunmen to spare the lives of their flock.

“Today we will pray for those who attacked us, attacked our church and killed fathers Taher and Wassim,” Habash said in a homily given at about the same time the Sayidat al-Nejat cathedral was attacked seven days previously.

Images of the dead were to be seen everywhere on Sunday, on posters on bloodstained and bullet-pocked walls, by the candles and on laminated photos passed out among the faithful.

Along the length and on both sides of the candle-lit cross stood worshippers, among them wounded survivors, holding candles as a passing priest blessed them with incense.

The marks of the carnage were everywhere, on bullet-holed walls, chipped and broken woodwork, and cracked marble of some of the pillars. From the cupola, a disfigured fresco of the Virgin Mary looked down.

Following the attack the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility in a statement that also said Christians everywhere were henceforth “legitimate targets.”

But on Sunday Father Habash sought to reassure his flock.

“Jesus said do not have fear,” he told the congregation.

In the chancel, portraits of the victims lay amid a mountain of bouquets at the foot of a large wooden cross.

Some of the faithful said they would not have missed this first mass since the deadly events of a week ago for all the world. The service was celebrated under tight security.

“It is a question of honour. We come here with the strength of our faith. The great message of Jesus Christ is not to hate our enemies,” said Salem Ablahad, 47, a woodworker who was related to Taher, one of the dead priests.

Outside the cathedral gate Ikhlas Yussef said with a smile that she was happy to be there, and that the attacks would not scare Christians out of Iraq.

“To celebrate mass here today was important because we want to prove to the terrorists that no one will leave,” said Yussef, 47, dressed entirely in black.

“Yes, I am very happy. This is like a shot in the hearts of the terrorists.”

After the attack, one of worst targeting Iraqi Christians, many faithful said they would flee the country, like the two-thirds of the 450,000 Christians who lived in the capital before the 2003 US-led invasion.

“If people had said they wanted to leave, it was because they were in panic. But they will not do it,” said Tony Boulas, a 45-year-old tradesman.

“We will not leave because we were the first here,” he said in a reference to pre-Islamic Iraq.

In Britain on Sunday, however, an Iraqi Christian leader said Christians should leave Iraq or face being killed by Al-Qaeda.

“If they stay they will be finished, one by one,” London-based Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told the BBC in an interview.

“Which is better for us? To stay and be killed or emigrate to another place and to live in peace?”