The death toll from a hostage standoff at a Catholic church in Baghdad has risen to 58, police officials with the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Monday. Seventy-five others were wounded in the attack by armed gunmen Sunday, the officials said, adding that most of the casualties were women and children. Two priests were also among the dead as well as seventeen security officers and five gunmen. The hours-long standoff ended Sunday after Iraqi security forces stormed the Sayidat al-Nejat church. Eight suspects were arrested.
“All the marks point out that this incident carries the fingerprints of al-Qaeda,” Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said on state television Sunday. (CNN) “We took a decision to launch a land offensive, and in addition an airdrop, because it was impossible to wait – the terrorists were planning to kill a large number of our brothers, the Christians who were at Mass,” Obeidi said. “So the operation was successfully done. All terrorists were killed. And we now have other suspects in detention.” (BBC) He said that most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the kidnappers set off explosives inside the church. At least two of the attackers were wearing explosive vests, which they detonated just minutes before security forces raided the church, the police officials said. Karada is an area dotted with federal police checkpoints, local police patrols and political parties with security details, as well as security guards attached to the stock market and the church. Mr. Obeidi said, “It seems like there was negligence by the security forces, which we will investigate later.” (New York Times)
The Islamic State of Iraq later claimed responsibility for the attack through a statement posted on a radical Islamic website. The umbrella group includes a number of Sunni extremist organizations and has ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. “The Mujahedeens raised a filthy nest of the nests of polytheism, which has been long taken by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarter for a war against the religion of Islam and they were able by the grace of God and His glory to capture those were gathered in and to take full control of all its entrances,” the group said on the website. (CNN)
Pope Benedict XVI said Monday that he was praying “for the victims of this absurd violence – all the more ferocious in that it hit defenseless people gathered in the house of the Lord, which is home to reconciliation and love.” (CNN) During a holiday blessing from his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square, Benedict called for new international and national efforts to end violence, and said he wanted to renew his solidarity with the Christian community in the Middle East and encourage the faithful there to “be strong and safe in hope… Faced with such brutal episodes of violence which continue to tear apart the people of the Middle East, I want to renew again my heartfelt appeal for peace,” Benedict said. (CBC) His appeal came just a week after he closed a two-week meeting of Mideast bishops dedicated to supporting the minority Christian flock in the large Muslim religion. During the meeting, Iraq’s bishops in particular denounced how their faithful were disproportionally targeted by violence.
Survivors of the ordeal said they were about to begin Sunday night services when the gunmen entered the church, according to Martin Chulov, a journalist for the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper who was on the scene. A priest ushered the congregants into a back room, Chulov reported that survivors said. At one point, one of the gunmen entered the room and threw an unidentified explosive device inside, causing casualties, Chulov said.
The U.S. military spokesman said that as many as 120 people were taken hostage.
The gunmen seized the hostages after attacking the Baghdad Stock Market in the central part of the Iraqi capital earlier Sunday, police said. Four armed men entered the nearby Sayidat al-Nejat church after clashing with Iraqi security forces trying to repel the stock market attack. Iraq’s Interior Ministry told CNN that gunmen attacked the stock market to distract Iraqi security forces who were outside the church to protect it. The gunmen were demanding that the Iraqi government release a number of detainees and prisoners inside Iraqi prisons, saying the Christian hostages would be freed in return, according to the police officials. Iraq’s defence minister later said on state television that the kidnappers had demanded the release of a number of prisoners in both Iraq and Egypt.
Iraqi security forces sealed off the area surrounding the church, the officials said, and buildings were evacuated of civilians as a precautionary measure. At least 13 hostages, including two children, managed to escape ahead of the rescue operation, police said.
The Iraqi authorities ordered the attackers to release the hostages and to turn themselves in, warning that they would storm the church if they do not comply. A few hours passed quietly as military units took up positions outside the church, including several American units, said Chulov. “Then all hell broke loose,” he said. A firfight erupted, and Chulov said he heard three to four large explosions. Later, he saw about 20 ambulances race away from the scene. (CNN)
Throughout Monday, mourners carried coffins from the church, loading them onto vehicles bound for the morgue ahead of funerals on Tuesday. Raed Hadi, who tied the coffin of his cousin to the roof of a car, said the raid had resulted in a “massacre”. “We Christians don’t have enough protection,” he said. “What shall I do now? Leave and ask for asylum?” (BBC)
Younadim Kanna, a Christian Iraqi MP, said the government had failed to protect its citizens, but added that the Christian community would not be intimidated by violence. “Despite all of these terrorist attacks against the Christians, we are determined not to leave our country,” he said. (BBC) Kanna described the Iraqi rescue operation as “not professional,” saying “it was a hasty action that prompted the terrorists to kill the worshipers… We have no clear picture yet whether the worshippers were killed by the security forces’ bullets or by terrorists, but what we know is that most of them were killed when the security forces started to storm the church.” (CBC)
“There’s no future for us here,” said Stephen Karomi, a 24-year-old Christian from the northern town of Karakosh. “Everything is really foggy.” (New York Times)
Al-Baghdadia, the TV station in Baghdad that said it was contacted by gunmen during Sunday’s church hostage drama, has been taken off air. It stopped transmitting shortly after its building was taken over, reportedly by a large number of government troops. Earlier, its director and a switchboard operator were arrested, apparently on charges of contacting terrorists.
Minority Rights Group International (MRG) said religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq faced unprecedented levels of violence. “The security situation for Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq has become critical,” said executive director Mark Lattimer. “The safety of minorities must now become an urgent priority for the Iraqi government, with security measures planned in full co-operation with community leaders.” (BBC)
Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michael, a Christian, said at the scene of the Baghdad attack: “What happened was more than a catastrophic and tragic event. In my opinion, it is an attempt to force Iraqi Christians to leave Iraq and to empty Iraq of Christians.” (Reuters)
Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki said Iraq would not allow the attack to succeed in “creating chaos and driving Iraqis from their homeland.” (Reuters)
The American military spokesman minimized the role that U.S. troops played in the operation. “The U.S. only provided UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] support with video imagery. As always we have advisers with the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] command teams,” the spokesman said. (CNN)
While the U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ended earlier this year, some 50,000 American troops are expected to remain in the country until the end of 2011 to train, assist and advise Iraqi troops. Many churches have been bombed in recent years – including Our Lady of Salvation in August 2004 – and priests kidnapped and killed, but there has never been a prolonged hostage situation like this before, a BBC correspondent reported. Christians – many from ancient denominations – have been leaving Iraq in droves since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. About 600,000 remain.
The church from Monday’s attack, with a huge cross visible from hundreds of yards away, was already surrounded with concrete bollards and razor wire, and church leaders have been fearful attack since the Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr. Jones decided in the end however not to burn the Koran.
Sunday’s attack followed the bombing of a cafe in Diyala province on Friday in which 22 people died, interrupting a relatively long period without a major assault by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents. The previous high-profile suicide bombing took place on September 5 when insurgents stormed an army base in Baghdad.