Massacre shatters Christians in Iraq
It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003.
The New York Times
BAGHDAD — Blood still smeared the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church on Monday. Scraps of flesh remained between the pews. It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003. But for survivors, the tragedy went deeper than the toll of the human wreckage: A fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests had unraveled yet another thread of the country's once eclectic fabric.
"We've lost part of our soul now," said Rudy Khalid, a 16-year-old Christian who lived across the street. He shook his head.
"Our destiny," Khalid said, "no one knows what to say of it."
The massacre, in which 58 people were killed by an affiliate of al-Qaida, paled before the worst spectacles of violence in Iraq. Since the U.S. invasion, tens of thousands have died here — Sunni and Shiite Muslims — and few of the deaths generated the outrage expressed Monday.
Iraq was once a remarkable mélange of beliefs, customs and traditions; the killings Sunday drew another border in a nation defined more by war, occupation and deprivation. Identities have hardened; diversity has faded.
Nearly all of Iraq's Jews left long ago, many harassed by a xenophobic government. Iraq's Christians have dwindled; once numbering anywhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million, at least half are thought to have emigrated since 2003, their leaders say.
"They came to kill Iraq, not Iraqis," said Bassam Sami, who huddled in a room for four hours before security forces managed to free him. "They came to kill the spirit of Iraq. They came to kill the reason to live, every dream that you want to make true."
On the morning after security forces stormed the Syrian Catholic Church, freeing hostages but leaving far more dead and wounded behind, official accounts contradicted one another's and prompted suggestions they might have inadvertently worsened the carnage. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said security forces made the decision to storm the church after believing the assailants had begun killing the hostages. Had they not, he said, the toll would have been even worse.
But one official said that 23 of the hostages were killed when two of the gunmen detonated suicide vests as security forces stormed the church. Another confirmed that account but said that many hostages were killed soon after the gunmen, thought to number between six and 15, seized the building.
Before the gunmen entered, Rafael Qutaimi, a priest, had managed to herd many of the other survivors into a backroom, where they barricaded themselves behind two bookshelves.
"Peace be upon you, Mary," some prayed. "God in heaven, help us," others muttered. In time, the gunmen learned they were there. Unable to break in, they hurled four grenades inside through a window, killing four and wounding many more, survivors said.
Sami was lucky. He escaped from the backroom without any visible wounds. But Monday, he listed his friends who had died the day before. Raghda, John, Rita, the Rev. Wassim, Fadi, George, Nabil and Abu Saba.
"A long list," he said simply. He shook his head, growing angry. Several survivors said that many of the casualties occurred when the gunmen entered and began firing randomly — at people, church icons and even windows. They described a ferocity on the part of the gunmen, some of them speaking in dialects from other Arab countries, as though the very sight of the church's interior had enraged them.
"They seemed insane," said Ban Abdullah, a 50-year-old survivor.
Police stood guard at the church, its doors barricaded with barbed wire and its walls lined with roses, orange trees and a plant Iraqis call "the ears of an elephant." One of them discouraged anyone from entering the shattered doors, under a portico that celebrated the glory of God "on the land of peace."
"Blood, flesh and bones," he described the scene. "You can't bear the smell."
Knots of survivors, as well as their friends and relatives, stood in the street amid bullet casings and bandage wrappers, some of them crying. Meyassr al-Qasboutros, a priest, was among them. His cousin, Wassim Sabih, was one of the two priests killed. Survivors said Sabih was pushed to the ground as he grasped a crucifix and pleaded with the gunmen to spare the worshippers.
He was then killed, his body riddled with bullets.
"We must die here," al-Qasboutros said defiantly. "We can't leave this country."
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