Horrifying news out of Iraq: Gunmen took 100 people hostage in a Syrian-Catholic church in Baghdad yesterday, and by the time Iraqi antiterrorist forces were able to regain control, as many as 37 hostages and security officers were killed and another 56 wounded. According to official estimates this morning, the death toll has risen to at least 50.
In a statement posted on a Web site operated by militants late on Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq took responsibility for the attack, calling the church “the dirty den of idolatry,” Reuters reported. The posting said its actions had been prompted in part by the behavior of the Coptic Church in Egypt, which it accused of detaining two women who converted to Islam. The group also said it would “exterminate Iraqi Christians” if Muslim women in Iraq were not freed, The Associated Press said.
Hussain Nahidh, a police officer who saw the interior of the church, said: “It’s a horrible scene. More than 50 people were killed. The suicide vests were filled with ball bearings to kill as many people as possible.”
“Many people went to the hospitals without legs and hands,” he said.
The situation for Christians in Iraq was already tenuous at best — this church, Our Lady of Salvation, had been attacked before in 2004 — and this latest violence seems likely to drive even more from the country (h/t Rocco Palmo):
“This tragedy represents a new and terrifying change in strategy by terrorists” said an anonymous source from the Catholic community in Baghdad, “it means all Christian parishes in Iraq are in danger”. . . .
[Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad of the Chaldeans, Shlemon Warduni] adds that “the Christian community no longer feel safe, not even in the House of God, this attack will have a very negative influence on those who until now had chosen to remain in Baghdad, with many saying they are ready to leave”.
Bishop Warduni said that among the first hostages killed were the priests celebrating Mass at the time.
Pope Benedict prayed for the victims earlier today, denouncing the act as “absurd,” “ferocious,” and a “savage [moment] of violence.” We join our prayers with his for the victims, their families, and all those who live in fear because of their faith.