Even by the standards of savagery we have come to expect in Iraq, Sunday’s attack on a Catholic church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were killed and another 70 to 80 seriously wounded, was particularly horrific, upsetting and, as the Holy Father put it, “absurd”.
Without any provocation, eight men from a terrorist group entered the church and immediately murdered a priest, before seizing the rest of the congregation hostage with the intention to kill. This was the deadliest attack on Iraqi Christians since the US-led invasion in 2003.
What are we to make of this act of inhumanity? It is hard to fathom in its brutality and belongs to what John Paul II often referred to as the mysterium iniquitatis (mystery of iniquity) at work in the world. Yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the attack was part of a broader effort by elements in the Middle East to drive Christianity from its heartlands.
Before Sunday’s events there had been some hope that life had returned to relative normality for Iraq’s minorities after five years of church-bombings, kidnappings and murders. This latest attack has led to renewed despair. Many Chaldeans and Assyrians, after over 1,800 years of existence as a living community, now believe that they have has no future in Iraq. In 1987 a census recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today, an estimated 400,000 remain. Other Christian communities in the Middle East also fear for their safety, not least in Egypt, from where Sunday’s attackers may have hailed.
Western leaders, it is sad to say, have been prepared to stand by as Iraqi Christians have been attacked, motivated by a mixture of apathy and fear and representing electorates largely alienated from their Christian heritage. And yet the exodus of Christians is not just a colossal tragedy for the Iraqi faithful themselves but a disaster for all of us. Their flight removes a moderating force from the Middle East. Christians in the region have for centuries acted as bridge-builders between East and West. As the faithful flee the chances of future understanding between historically Christian and Muslim civilisations recedes.
The attack offers a bleak coda to the Synod of Bishops of the Middle East, which ended in Rome just days earlier. The bishops had set out a compelling vision of peace, justice and reconciliation in the region. That vision seems dead this week. But, as Christians who worship the Risen Lord, we trust that death and destruction will not have the last word.