“It is only speculation,” Fr. Safaa Habash said, “an opinion.” Still, he couldn't help but wonder about the timing of the October 31 attack that killed or wounded most of the 120 worshipers at Baghdad's Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.
The attack came one week after the end of a historic gathering of Middle Eastern bishops in Rome. It was the worst violence against Christians in Iraq, since war came to their country in 2003.
“The Synod of Bishops called on the Christians and Muslims to come together to make a dialogue, and to open bridges between each community,” the Iraqi-born, Michigan-based Syriac Catholic priest recounted.
“But those people,” he said in reference to the terrorists, “they try to give a response to that Synod of Bishops … ” Fr. Safaa went on to describe the attackers as “brainwashed”-- “mercenaries” with “no principles.” One of the suicide attackers, he had heard, was about twelve years old.
The expatriate priest was thousands of miles away when the Baghdad cathedral was attacked. But he spoke from his experience with the kind of men who carry out these attacks. He described how groups of Islamic militants “want to disturb the relationship between Muslims and Christians … They want to divide Iraq into different factions, and try to disturb everything. They try to delay the political process, and cause Christians to flee Iraq.”
It remained unclear, as of November 2, what particular motive had prompted the cathedral attack—whether it was simply a backlash against the synod, a sectarian show of brute force, or retaliation for the unusual grievances cited by an al-Qaida-linked Iraqi group this week. The group Islamic State of Iraq took responsibility for the devastating assault, claiming to avenge women who had allegedly converted to Islam and consequently been kidnapped by Christian monks in Egypt.
Fr. Safaa didn't know what exactly had driven the killers. But he was all too aware what they had done.
“They entered the Church and they killed the two priests, they injured the other, and they killed most of the people in the Church. More than 50 people were killed … Today (Nov. 2) they buried the bodies of all 50 people who were killed, the priests also, in Baghdad and Mosul. In my town, they buried about seven.”
When CNA reached Fr. Safaa, he had been looking at pictures arriving from home. “Very sad, and unspeakable, inexpressible images of those victims.” One of his brother priests, a man he knew, “shot, bullets in his head.” Young people and their parents, incinerated among the toppled pews.
Groups of militants, he said, are “working out of their enmity against the Christian communities” and trying “to kill the thriving Christianity in Iraq.” He said persecution had reached the level of “genocide”-- and the attack on Our Lady of Salvation signified that it wasn't letting up.
“That church was one of the prominent churches in Baghdad. It was at the heart of Baghdad, it was in one of the safe neighborhoods. It was near the Green Zone, and it was (protected).” Somehow, the church's armed guards and barbed wire had failed to defend against a small group of heavily armed men, wearing explosive belts they later detonated as police arrived.
Fr. Safaa wondered whether the prominent church might have fallen victim to the type of ploy that has enabled deadly attacks against the government: “I mean, was there any infiltration?”
Many Iraqis, however, aren't trying to explain Sunday's massacre. They're simply wondering whether they can remain in their country at all.
Fr. Safaa serves a community that has chosen, for the time being, to seek refuge in America. But he agreed with the message of the Synod for the Middle East, that those who remain are bearing critical witness.
“We always ask our people to stick to their land,” he said. “We don't have to withdraw, and we don't have to flee, we don't have to evacuate Iraq.” He acknowledged that there would most likely be “a wave of immigration, now, because of what has happened” at Our Lady of Salvation.
“But I do hope that Christianity will not disappear in Iraq.”
“Our Church was established upon the martyrs,” he stressed. “There were many martyrs-- in the Syriac Church, in the Chaldean Church, the whole Church in Iraq … we don't lose sight that we are the Church of Martyrs.” Fr. Safaa said that he believed Iraq's Christian roots, strengthened by a history of sacrifice, ran too deep to be lost altogether.
“The Christians in Iraq, and the religious leaders, they are determined to remain in that country … they are involved in reconstructing and rebuilding Iraq. The Christians, they are professionals, there are so many doctors, engineers.”
Fr. Safaa said that his country's present and immediate future looks bleak. He noted that democracy did not seem to be taking root, instead giving way to a sectarian civil war.
Yet from the perspective of faith, he remained hopeful, maintaining his belief that the Christians of Iraq can be witnesses for peace.
“Priests, religious centers, monasteries—they can teach. They can teach the language of peace, the language of love, the language of justice. And I think that their presence is important for the future of Iraq.”
“I would say that we have a hope—that we will see the light at the end of the tunnel.”