Iraq Ambassador: Cathedral Attack a Catastrophe for Iraq

“A catastrophe” is how Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, described the Oct 31 attack on Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral. Fifty-two were killed (along with six attackers) and 78 were wounded when Iraqi Security Forces stormed church offices where al Qaeda terrorists entrapped more than 100 massgoers during a brutal midafternoon assault on the church.

“It is an extremely painful experience not only for the Christians of Iraq, but for all Iraqis, except for those who are rightly described as extremists and intolerant,” the ambassador said. He described the killing that took place inside the Our Lady of Deliverance church as “abhorrent.”

“Personally I was very shocked and saddened and very worried,” he said—worried because he fears that the steady departure of Iraq’s Christians over years of conflict could now accelerate into an outright “stampede.” Since 2003 Iraq's Christians, who have lived in Iraq for nearly 2,000 years, have diminished from an estimated 900,000 to about half that number today.

The Syriac Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, Ignatius Metti Metok, told the BBC he lost half his normal congregation after the Oct 31 attack on his cathedral. The bishop said he could not force his congregation to stay in Iraq. "My people say to me, 'You want us to stay after what's happened? It could happen again, and who's going to protect us?' We tell them, the church is against emigration, we have to stay here, whatever the sacrifices, to bear witness to our faith. But people are human, and we can't stop them leaving."

During a Nov. 7 Mass in Great Britain, Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syrian Orthodox Church in London said the cathedral attack amounted to "genocide" and urged Christians in Iraq to flee for their lives. He told British media that there was now no place for Christians in Iraq.

"The Christians are weak,” he said, “they don't have militia, they don't have a [political] party.” The archbishop said, “Everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace—nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us."

He accused the United States of empty promises of democracy and human rights. "Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We've lost many people and they've bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries," he said. "Why are we living now in this country, after we had a promise from America to bring us freedom, democracy?"

The archbishop called on the U.K. government to grant Christian Iraqis asylum and called on the Iraqi government to protect Christians from militant attacks. "Before they killed one, one, one but now, tens, tens. If they do that, they will finish us if we stay in Iraq," he added.

According to Ambassador Sumaida’ie, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered significant security improvements around Christian churches. He said responses such as the archbishop’s were understandable after such a tragedy, but the voices of other Christian leaders were urging Iraqi Christians to stay put. “They are saying, ‘This is our country and we will never leave,’” he said. “We have a common enemy here and this is also a mortal enemy of the United States, religious extremism as represented by Al Qaeda.”

The ambassador described Iraq’s Christians as integral threads of the nation’s social fabric who were “loved and respected” by everyday Iraqis. The loss of its Christians “would be extremely damaging for Iraq,” he said, not only for the cultural devastation the departure of the community would represent but because the leadership of highly skilled Christians was key to Iraq’s reconstruction and recovery.

“Al Qaeda and those who travel in that orbit” have been extremely “resourceful and clever in selecting targets with the maximum impact,” Ambassador Sumaida’ie said. Their soft target attacks not only provoke social disruption within Iraq, they encourage international misgivings about the nation’s future. After the most recent attacks at Our Lady of Deliverance and a few nights later throughout Shiite communities in Baghdad, international media images “painted a picture of Iraq again descending into chaos.” According to the ambassador, after years when hundreds were killed each month, the contemporary reality for many in Iraq is life returning to something close to normal “broadly speaking.” Bombings on November 8 in Iraq’s normally calm holy cities of Najaf and Karbala killed at least 22 people and wounded dozens more.

The ambassador worried that such spectacular assaults would dishearten supporters of Iraq in the United States. He added it was disturbing to hear voices in Congress talk of scaling back or cutting off aid to Iraq. “The United States should continue to help us strengthen our security forces in all aspects, from operations to intelligence to logistics,” said, arguing that a continued effort in Iraq was not only the right thing to do but what was best for the United State’s own narrow interests in defeating terrorism. At the same time, Ambassador Sumaida’ie did not believe the United States needed to alter its deployment strategy in Iraq or reconsider it current timeline for a U.S. withdrawal in Iraq, which, he said, despite the recent attacks, remains “doable.”

“It’s not the number of combat troops that remain that are important but the quantity and quality of U.S. support to the Iraqi forces that is important and also [providing] the resources we need to be more effective.” The ambassador said Iraq is making progress on improving its security “but we are not there yet.

“Attacks like these teach us that we can’t relax; we can’t become complacent. We must take the fight to this enemy until he is defeated.”

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