By Alan Holdren
On the first anniversary of the massacre at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, the 42 worshipers killed were remembered as martyrs and their intercession was sought on behalf of Iraq’s still besieged Christian community.
Three children, two priests and a pregnant woman were among the victims when five Islamic militants linked to the terrorist group al-Qaida scaled an outer wall, entered the church and opened fire on Oct. 31, 2010.
Today, in an intimate memorial Mass held at Rome’s Santa Maria della Concezione Church, Catholics prayed for the living — the “persecuted Iraqi Christians … that they never cease to give testimony to the truth, though it may cost their lives.”
Despite the sadness of the anniversary, the tone was hopeful.
During his homily, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican official in charge of Eastern Catholic Churches, spoke of the sacrifice of the deceased. “Our brothers by a mysterious way passed us in the chase for the award and the goal of our path, Christ himself,” he said.
The Mass was celebrated in the Syro-Catholic rite, but Iraqi Chaldean as well as Egyptian and Israeli priests came to show support.
Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, patriarch emeritus of the Syro-Catholic Church, and Archbishop Mikael Al-Jamil, the Syro-Catholic procurator in Rome, led the celebration.
Later, worshipers remembered the horrible events and spoke of their hope for an end to the persecution of Christians in Iraq.
An Iraqi priest, Father Mukhlis Shisha told CNA that his two best friends — both priests —were killed in the attack.
“Their martyrdom was more valuable for having taken place within the church. It is more beautiful to be killed within the church than outside it,” he said.
Large posters emblazoned with the images of the two priests adorned either side of the altar during the celebration.
“Fr. Thair Sa’adallah was just beginning his homily after having read the Gospel,” Fr. Shisha remembered. “When he saw the terrorists enter, he took the Gospel in hand and held it up, saying, ‘In the name of the Gospel, leave them and take me. Me for them!”
The attackers quickly killed Fr. Sa’adallah before turning on the rest of the congregation. Witnesses say they aimed particularly to kill the young men of the parish. In addition to the dead, more than 100 people were wounded.
Fr. Wasseem Sabb’ieh was hearing confessions at the time of the attack. He managed to rush two families to safety through a secret door before turning back to face the attackers.
“Before he closed the door, one of the people he helped said to him, ‘Father, leave them and come with us and you will be saved,’” Fr. Shisha recounted. “He answered, ‘I won’t leave them like this,’ and he locked the door.”
Fr. Sabb’ieh proceeded directly to the attackers, shouting: “What do you want from us?”
He was killed with a bullet to the head while at the same time one of the attackers detonated a suicide bomb beside him.
Fr. Shisha is very aware of how close he himself was to death. He would have been at the Mass had he not been called back to his hometown in northern Baghdad to speak at a conference that day.
Stories of those saved are remarkable.
A little girl – Fr. Sa’adallah’s niece – survived the attacks in a cupboard, where she was hidden during the more than four hours of terror. Many took refuge in the sacristy. Another 80 were saved as they packed themselves into a tiny side room that measured just 9 feet by 12 feet.
The memory of the dead is still graphically present in the cathedral. The bloody handprint of a pregnant woman who was killed has been conserved as a reminder of her martyrdom.
“There are too many stories to tell,” Fr. Shisha told CNA. “Essentially, those who died, who lost their lives in the church gave themselves for the cause of the others.”
In some ways, he said, his priest friends were prepared for the moment.
Just one day before the attack, Fr. Sa’adallah sent a text message to all of his friends which read simply: “My life is Christ.” Fr. Sabb’ieh was known to say out loud to God, “My heart beats with your love. May my tongue speak your glory.”
Their lives were taken by five radical Muslims, two from Syria and one each from Yemen, Libya and Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a reported al-Qaida associate, claimed responsibility for the massacre.
During the attack, Fr. Shisha received cell phone calls from people trapped in the cathedral. They said the attackers told them they were “infidels” and that they “had to be killed.”
The terrorists killed themselves, but others who planned the attacks were later detained. Fr. Shisha was given the chance to speak with them, and he asked them simply, “(w)hy did you do this?”
“Their response,” he said, “was that you (Christians) are all ‘kafara,’ that is, ‘infidels,’ and we (Muslims) cannot coexist with you.”
According to the Vatican’s representative to Eastern Catholics, the attack should not be forgotten.
“The memory of the past is very important for the future of the Church in the Middle East,” Cardinal Sandri told CNA.
“This situation in the Church is difficult — being a minority and being the object of terrorist attacks and violent acts even within the very church walls. But, it has also brought with it, on the other hand, the fact that the blood of those who have died will certainly be the seed of hope and life for the future.”
Today’s Mass, Cardinal Sandri said, honors the memory of the victims and expresses hope for better days.
“Today’s reflection is to pray for them but at the same time to ask that they – through their death, with their oblation – intercede for the Church in Iraq, so that there might be peace in Iraq and all the Middle East and that there might be greater awareness to security,” he said.
“In the future, we cannot forget the blood of the martyrs which has to give us a feeling of hope, hope against everything. Christ will conquer all,” he added.
A memorial Mass will be held Oct. 31 at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. The cause for the beatification of the martyrs is now being pursued in Rome.