The Halloween Horror: One Year Since Baghdad Cathedral Attack

The Anniversary: I scanned the congregation from my seat at the altar of the little church in Paris, Notre Dame de Chaldée. Their faces have become familiar to me: young women in black clutching small children, their long black hair and dark eyes blending into their widow’s weeds. And the parents whose children were murdered: the mothers also in black, the fathers in ill-fitting suits. Several young women dressed less somberly, despite their mutilations. They are learning to use prostheses, like the pretty professor who used to teach computer science at university before her feet were virtually blown off. One tall man, dressed in grunge-style, nursed his shattered leg, still covered in pins after the multiple surgeries of the past year.

They blended into the larger congregation, also familiar faces: similarly dressed, covering similar wounds and nursing the same dark griefs: loss of loved ones, loss of beloved country, of livelihood, status and dignity. The year-old arrivals are not of the same church, so they sat separately during the long Chaldean liturgy in Aramaic, Jesus’ language, punctuated by the celebrant’s few brief sentences in French. Their own prayer language is Syriac, and the two communities can understand each other’s ancient liturgical tongue, though Arabic is otherwise used. Seven priests participated — Syriac Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Chaldeans. Deacons of both churches led each community separately in hymns. It was like having two choirs. Everyone took the Eucharist together. Though I am an Episcopal bishop, I was asked to wear a stole, sit next to the altar and participate, except that I was not offered (and did not expect to take) communion.

The Horror: One year ago, at least five men penetrated the light security in front of Baghdad’s largest church, Sayidat al-Najat, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, shooting two Muslim guards outside and then rushing in. They shouted that they were taking revenge for burning Qurans and Egyptian Muslim women held by Christians (both complete fictions). After two hours, during which they murdered 46 men, women and children, and wounded 60 others, Iraqi forces stormed the church. All five terrorists set off suicide belts loaded with shrapnel. Seven others were reported captured, though nothing has been heard about them since. Of the three priests present, two were killed and one seriously wounded. The pastor, Fr. Wasim Tabeeh, advanced toward the men, asking them to spare his parishioners. He was immediately cut in two by sustained fire from several AK-47s, in front of his mother and father, who also saw another son die later in the attack. His colleague, Fr. Saad Abdallah Tha’ir, was next to die. A third priest, Fr. Raphael Qatin, quickly herded some people into the sacristy, saving them, but not before he received a bullet through his abdomen. Seven Iraqi troops died in the government’s brute-force counterattack (American forces were not involved).

A Sunni extremist group calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq, linked to al Qaeda, took responsibility. It was the worst attack on Iraqi Christians since the war began in 2003.

The world’s reaction was generally tepid. Just another attack in Iraq on Christians. But for many of the remaining Christians in Iraq — well over a million in 2003, today fewer than 400,000 — it was the watershed event that proved they had no future in the land where they had flourished for 2,000 years. The exodus had been a steady stream before; after the cathedral attack it turned into a torrent that has not stopped.

For me, this all started when I accepted, not without fear and trembling, an invitation from the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon to visit Baghdad just before the war began, in February 2003. I was there to represent the Episcopal Church, but the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had paid the airfare, and I was to report on what I saw. An Iraqi businessman close to the patriarch, Elish Yako, and my oldest friend in the world, Jean-Michel Cadiot, an Iraq specialist for Agence France-Presse, accompanied me. I met all the bishops of the different Iraqi churches in that very cathedral attacked a year ago. I visited with Muslim and Mandaean leaders, led an ecumenical service for peace and gave a lot of interviews to the media, rather starved for news in the pre-conflict lull before the storm.

After this trip, various Iraqis contacted me for help during and after the height of Operation Enduring Freedom. There was little I could do, as U.S. law at the time forbad giving visas to Iraqis in-country (this has since changed). Finally, in August 2007, a Chaldean family I had stayed with called to say that fanatics had threatened them with death if they did not flee, a scenario that was becoming commonplace for Christians. They had lost the family’s mother in 2004 in a church bombing, and had resolved to stay, but this was too much.

After the American ambassador told me with great sadness he couldn’t help, I turned to France. As it turned out, the then-Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders, was interested in helping Iraqi Christians. With Mssrs. Yako and Cadiot, and others, I formed l’Association d’entraide aux minorities d’Orient (AEMO, meaning “association to help Eastern minorities”), a French NGO whose sole job was to help the government identify worthy candidates for refuge under the 1951 Geneva Convention. That Convention allows for asylum to be granted to people personally threatened with death for reasons of faith. Until 2010, our volunteer Iraqi and French members, working with the government, brought 740 such people out of Iraq to asylum in France, and, at the government’s request, welcomed to France an additional 500 people from U.N. refugee camps in Syria and Jordan.

Things had fallen into a rhythm: vet candidates in Iraq using our extensive contacts with religious leaders of all faiths, welcome at the airport the ones the government chose to accept (we presented lists of over 4,000 candidates) and help them into the asylum system. Of the 1,300 total that we have helped, most are Christians, but some families are dissident Muslims and two are Mandaeans. This is a humanitarian operation, not a sectarian one.

My role as president has been to keep the group together and in good working relationship with the government asylum and visa services. But the lion’s share of the credit goes to people like Elish Yako, Elisabeth Gobry, Yousef Poutrous, Jean-Michel Cadiot and dozens of others, including in Iraq, who have ceaselessly toiled to save lives.

Then came the attack on the Syriac Catholics. A day later, All Saints Day 2010, I got a call from the Prime Minister’s office: “The French government is revolted by this cowardly attack and we want to make a strong gesture. Can AEMO make a list of all the people wounded in yesterday’s attack? We want to bring them to France for treatment.” I knew our members in Baghdad could handle the task, so I agreed. They combed Baghdad’s hospitals, despite the string of car bombs that exploded simultaneously that same day. A week later, 35 wounded, accompanied by 18 family members, arrived by air ambulance at the Bourget airport outside Paris. (Italy brought another 17 from our list to Rome for treatment, eight others stayed in Baghdad.) We had lined up 35 Arabic translators to ride in the ambulances that took the wounded to 17 different Parisian hospitals. One of the wounded was the surviving Muslim guard. That began a daily round of support to the arrivals.

The past year has been hard on AEMO. Most of the wounded were seriously injured and required intensive treatment. Our volunteers have ministered to them literally for the past 357 days — since their arrival. The Syriacs remain traumatized, and despite heroic efforts by some French psychiatrists, cultural and linguistic barriers have meant that their psychological healing has been very slow. Integrating them into French life has also gone slowly. For one thing, France recently became the first choice for asylum seekers, surpassing the United States. The services are saturated, and the personnel overwhelmed. So a few Syriacs are still living in the suburban transit center they went to after being released from hospital. The local Catholic bishop, Michel Santier, and people in his diocese of Créteil, have worked hard to minister to their needs as well. Bishop Santier even gave up the traditional Christmas midnight mass in his cathedral to celebrate it with our refugees in a chapel near their center.

AEMO’s work has not been without criticism since the beginning. First, we had to counter the accusation that we were helping to “empty Iraq of its Christians.” Almost a million Iraqi Christians have fled their country — of these, only 800 through our help, and all these personally, verifiably threatened with death for reasons of faith. Most of these still dream of returning to Iraq, where they have left everything behind. Second, we have been accused of favoritism in vetting candidates, even though it is the French government, not AEMO, who selects people to bring to France. Only 20 percent of the people on our lists have made it out. Of these, not a single candidacy has been proven to be invalid — proof of the efficacy of our Iraqi vetters.

Adding to all this are the unfortunate ethnic issues of Oriental Christians. Iraqis do not get along with Lebanese who do not get along with Turks who do not… With the arrival of the Syriacs, AEMO has been the target of petty jealousies. For this reason, the anniversary Mass took place at the Chaldean church in Paris, which has served as our base.

Finally, as other conflicts dominate the headlines now, and new streams of refugees, especially North African, are asking France for refuge, we have had to struggle to get visas for close family members to join those who have been granted asylum. On top of it all, there is the world’s general indifference to the disappearance by violence of the ancient churches of Mesopotamia, the land of Abraham and Sarah, the prophets of Israel and the missions of the first apostles. Our Christian refugees often endure taunts that they are but recent converts in lands that “belong to Islam.” Fundamentalisms always must keep their members ignorant of the truth in order to survive, and Islamic fundamentalism is no different in this regard than Christian or other religious fundamentalisms.

Iraq is not the only biblical land emptying its ancient churches. The Christian churches of Israel-Palestine and Iran have lost 80 percent or more to emigration. Lebanon was until recently a majority Christian nation, but no longer. The recent deadly conflicts between Copts and Salafists in Egypt are ominous. Most of all, I fear for Syria, which bears some resemblance to Saddam’s Iraq. The Christians of Syria will suffer the same fate as the Christians of Iraq whenever Assad’s regime comes to its end.

And there is more. At the meal following the Mass at the Chaldean church, I met five Pakistani men who are asking AEMO for help. According to our asylum expert, they too are verifiably threatened with death for reasons of faith. Specifically, they have each been sentenced to death under Pakistan’s barbaric blasphemy law, like Asia Bibi, whose case has made headlines around the world. Alas, her case is far from being an exception. Just like the Syriacs, who only a year ago were worshipping peacefully in their cathedral.

The priest finished cantillating his Aramaic chant, in a musical style that has not changed since the original Temple in Jerusalem. This is a first-century church, after all, like Jerusalem, Antioch and Rome. Fr. Raphael, now healed of his wounds, gave the final blessing. A choir of six young women and two teenage boys then responded to the 2,000-year-old melisma with a song, accompanied by a tape played through a speaker. It sounded very much like the Arab-pop that American troops bring home with them from Iraq.

Somehow it comforted me to see these young survivors, enthusiastically belting out their own modern “praise music” in the language of Jesus, singing its highly ornamented melody and swaying to the Middle Eastern beat.

And so another year begins for them, more time to hold each other up, continue to heal, and to try to forget the Horror.