Massacre in a generic Iraqi church

One of the first things that your GetReligionistas do when preparing a post in our WordPress software is to head over to the “Categories” function box and click all of the relevant choices for how we want this item stored in our archives. It’s a far from perfect process that keeps raising questions. For example, “Are Pentecostals really evangelicals?” Or how about, “OK, I know that Jordan is in the Middle East. But how about Iraq and Iran? How close is close enough? Do I really need to create ANOTHER new category?”

In the world of Christianity, there are some groups that are large enough to get their own box, so to speak. With the Divine Ms. M.Z. Hemingway on board here at GetReligion, it is only a matter of time until the spiritual sons and daughters of Martin Luther get the nod.

But what about the following story from The New York Times? How does one do the categories on this one, when this tragic report includes all kinds of gory details, but never gets around to telling us one very crucial fact. Here’s the top of the report from Baghdad:

Iraqi antiterrorist forces stormed a church where gunmen had taken close to 100 hostages on Sunday in an afternoon of chaos that became a bloodbath. At least 30 hostages and 7 security officers were killed, and 41 hostages and 15 security force members were wounded, according to a source at the Ministry of the Interior.

OK, I know. That’s just the lede. Reporters often need to move the specifics a bit lower. For example, it took a few lines to get to the presumed identity of the attackers, which was the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant network connected to Al Qaeda.

Then there are plenty of specifics in this passage, just a few paragraphs later.

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. You can see human flesh everywhere. Flesh was stuck to the top roof of the hall. Many people went to the hospitals without legs and hands.”

The violence began shortly after 5 p.m. on Sunday. The gunmen first attacked the Baghdad stock exchange in the Karada neighborhood, killing two security guards and wounding four others, setting off two bombs and then taking refuge in the nearby Sayidat al-Nejat church. The church — one of six bombed in August 2004 — was filled for Sunday services. A local television channel, Baghdadiya, reported receiving a telephone call from someone claiming to be one of the attackers and demanding the release of all members of Al Qaeda imprisoned in Arab countries.

Now we know the name of the church — sort of.

But what kind of church is it? Protestant? Evangelical? Anglican? Orthodox? What kind of Orthodox, since the Middle East is a very complex place and its churches (along with other religious minority groups) are living under great persecution. Catholic? What kind of Catholic church is it? Etc., etc., etc. Of course, it is possible for a concerned reader to break away from the news report and do an online search for “Sayidat al-Nejat.” Then again, reporters and editors can do that, too.

Readers that make the effort to do that will learn something that is never addressed in the Times report — the fact that we are talking about the actual cathedral of the Syrian Catholic Church. At this point, I would like to know if the bishop was present.

We never find out the identity of the church, although readers are told this:

The church, with a huge cross visible from hundreds of yards away, was already surrounded with concrete bollards and razor wire, and church leaders have been fearful of attack since the Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr. Jones decided not to burn the Koran.

The Washington Post report on the attack is a little bit better. This time, readers are told:

Thirty Iraqi Christians were killed Sunday night during a dramatic siege of a church in Baghdad in which suicide bombers detonated explosives when Iraqi commandos stormed in, authorities said.

At least seven Iraqi security forces were killed during the operation to rescue 120 parishioners who were held hostage for hours at Our Lady of Salvation church in the upscale Karradah neighborhood, an Iraqi police official said. … Eight women and five children were among the dead, Iraqi authorities said. Nearly 60 people were wounded in the exchange of gunfire and the blasts inside the church, officials said. The U.S. military called the takeover a success.

So now we know the name of the church — in English, this time. However, once again there is no way to know what kind of church was bombed, although this detail is provided:

Sunday Mass was being held inside the Assyrian Christian church when the gunmen, reportedly wearing explosive vests, ran inside.

That’s getting close, but, as mentioned before, does little to narrow the field. Is it that hard for reporters to simply give the name of one of the city’s major churches? Did the reporters know that this attack was on a cathedral? And, yes, what about the bishop?

Just saying.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    Saw this up yesterday on Rocco Palmo’s “Whispers in the Loggia.”

    Wondered if you guys would mention it.

    Rocco has a follow-up; the Pope spoke about this at today’s (All Saints) Angelus address:

    And yes, the Syriac Catholic Church is in union with Rome. So these are our fellow Catholics, even if not of the Latin Rite.

  • Matt

    CNN mentioned in the lede that the church was Catholic, but said only “a Catholic church” rather than identifying it as the cathedral. CNN also mentioned in the second pgh that “two priests” were among the dead, but no mention of the bishop.

  • Matt

    What attracted my curiosity was the quote from a spokesman for the perpetrating terrorists, who characterized the location as “the nests of polytheism, which has been long taken by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarter for a war against the religion of Islam”. By “polytheism”, do they mean Trinitarian Christianity? Or are they referring to some previous polytheism at the site which was then “taken by the Christians”? After quoting it, CNN made no further comment about the religious character of the statement.

  • Matt

    @Martha, speaking of the Pope, the CNN report devoted a pgh to a nice quote from him.

  • Julia

    Further info on Syriac Catholics who use Aramaic in their Liturgy.

    This would also be a good place to note that a 2 week Synod of Eastern Catholic leaders in Rome just ended. Some of the public speeches addressed the contentions in the region. I was wondering if there would be blow-back. It didn’t take long. I wonder why the press gave almost NO attention to this historic meeting of the Catholic heads or high representatives of their churches in the East, including the head of the Syriac Church with its base near Damascus.

    The ever-valuable John Allen did a series of fascinating stories on this historic Synod (uncovered by the MSM) which you can find here:

    Some info from his first dispatch:

    Of the 185 bishops taking part (out of a total of some 270 participants), 140 come from the 22 Eastern Catholic churches in union with Rome, meaning that just 45 represent the Latin Rite. In most synods, the bishops and other participants from the East are almost a footnote – this time around, they’re the main act.

    That’s because the Christian presence in the nations which make up the Middle East is dominated by the Eastern churches, including both the Orthodox churches and those in union with Rome: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Palestinian Territories, and Yemen.

    The Synod for the Middle East will mark the first time that basically all the bishops of the Middle East have met with the pope as a group.

    Interesting notes:

    the pope has appointed two “honorary” presidents of the synod: Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the 90-year-old Patriarch of the Maronites, and Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, the 83-year-old Patriarch of the Chaldeans in Iraq.

    the two “working” presidents of the synod: Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan of Antioch, Syria, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches.

    Patriarch Younan’s full title is – Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Syrians. This is the head of the Syriac Catholic Church.

    Has no reporter wondered if this is a pay-back of sorts for his leading this Synod in Rome in the hated West?

  • David Charkowsky

    I just heard NPR cover this story on my morning drive.

    They were up-front about this being a Catholic church, however, they also seemed very deliberate in (1) framing this event as “robbery gone wrong”, and (2) attributing the deaths of the hostages to the raid by the counter-terrorism team! Both of these points were made and re-made.

    The report contained *no references* to suicide vests or to deaths prior to the raid.

  • Julia

    Couldn’t resist a bit more:

    Six different Eastern churches from the Middle East are represented in the synod: Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite, and Syrian.

    Here’s some comments by Georges Casmoussa, the Catholic Syriac Archbishop of Mosul:

    Archbishop Georges Casmoussa of Iraq struck a similar note, warning that increasingly Christians are seen in the Muslim street as “troops led by and for the so-called Christian West, and thus considered a parasitic body within the nation.”

    Places where Christians have been present since long before the rise of Islam, Casmoussa said, are becoming a “Dar el-Islam” where Christians feel unwanted.

    Too often, Casmoussa said, Christians living in an Islamic nation feel compelled to choose between “invisibility or exile.”


    From Wikipedia:

    Basile Georges Casmoussa (born 25 October 1938) is the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Iraq. He was, according to Vatican records, born in Iraq.

    66-year-old Casmoussa was kidnapped, reportedly by gunmen in Mosul, on January 17, 2005. Although there were fears that this marked a new wave of attacks on Christians in Iraq, it appeared that the motive was principally for ransom, reportedly US$200,000. The kidnapping was widely condemned.

    The Archbishop was freed one day later on January 18 with no ransom being paid.

    Some guest speakers included Mohammed al-Sammak, a Sunni counselor to the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, and Ayatollah Sayed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, a Shi’ite from Iraq.

    and Rabbi David Rosen, who was invited to address the synod on behalf of the Grand Rabbinate of Israel who said Christians have it great in Israel.

  • Julia

    One last bit. I can’t find the link.

    One on-line report of the hostage-taking in Baghdad described the Christians as having been in Iraq since

    “at least the 1st century”.

    I wonder how they could have been followers of Christ before he born or out of infancy?

  • Julia

    After this I’m gone, I promise.


    The Ayatollah who spoke at the synod in Rome was from Iran, not Iraq.

  • Patrick

    Islam holds that Christianity is polytheistic. This is because Islam is, by nature, carnally minded. When they hear Jesus is God, the son of God, they ask with whom the Father copulated with. This is an absurd question to the Christian, who is not locked into a purely carnal paradigm.

    Abusing and slaughtering unarmed dhimmi is nothing new, and never will be.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Here’s the link to the NPR story. No transcript is available yet, but David Charkowsky is right that NPR calls it a “robbery gone wrong” and doesn’t mention the suicide vests or bombs. NPR says that the intended target as the Baghdad stock exchange. The NYT also mentions the stock exchange, but doesn’t call it a “robbery”:

    The violence began shortly after 5 p.m. on Sunday. The gunmen first attacked the Baghdad stock exchange in the Karada neighborhood, killing two security guards and wounding four others, setting off two bombs and then taking refuge in the nearby Sayidat al-Nejat church. It was unclear whether the attackers’ main target was the stock market or the church, or whether they planned to attack both.

    If the attackers were indeed wearing suicide vests, “robbery gone wrong” seems like an extremely poor choice of words – what’s the point of robbing a bank if you’re going to blow yourself up in the process? The NPR reporter credits the robbery theory to unnamed officials, though she takes their suggestion at face value. Maybe the Iraqi government is trying to play down the religious aspect of the attack.

  • Matt

    CNN reported, citing the Iraqi Interior Ministry, that the gunmen first attacked the stock exchange as a diversion, to draw guards away from the church.

  • Johannes Oesch

    Thank you for reporting this tragedy in detail. It prompted me and helped me to write the column I was assigned to this week in our suburban county paper.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Americans and others had better wake up on their own for the media gives little coverage to the ongoing, constant slaughter and persecution of Christians in Islamic ( many formerly Christian) countries–a situation that has existed since Mohammed himself ordered the slaughter of a Jewish tribe that wouldn’t join his new religion.
    Possibly the vast majority of Moslems just want to live in peace. But then why does Islam seem to provide the nurturing cultural sea for so many violent fish to swim in. Chairman Mao had some sort of axiom around the concept about the people being the sea that makes such fish possible. But we rarely find any serious looking at Islam in our media which still seems determined to not allow such –look what happened to Juan Williams–and what about the disappearing “controversial” political cartoons about Islam (far milder than anything thrown at Catholics and other Christians).

  • Jerry seems to cover all the missing details.

    And, Deacon Bresnahan’s understanding of history is flawed. That was not the reason for what happened to that Jewish tribe. That’s part of the problem: ignorance of the facts including ignorance of theological facts.

  • Jane

    Incredibly, the media has managed to turn this cowardly act into another excuse to attack and blame Christians. I will make the comparison of a severely abused innocent child who is blamed for the violence done to him by the abuser: “He had it coming to him. It was his fault that I beat him.” Pity the poor Iraqi Christian victims who are blamed for the assault heaped upon them because of their Faith!

    Either Catholics are ridiculed and slandered by the media or else they are blamed. Truly, Catholic hatred is the last and most tolerated form of bigotry.

    The media, especially that blatantly biased piece posted in today’s NY Times, continues to defend those “peace-loving” Moslems, regardless of what atrocities they commit in the name of Allah. To this the media turns a blind eye, but they will put the blame, most unfairly, for this act of hateful violence on the Florida preacher.

    The poor, unfortunate Iraqi Catholics have been decimated long before Rev. Jones threatened to burn the Koran. …

  • KM

    Deacon John, thank you for your frank portrayal of Islam.
    Perhaps our friend Jerry here can tell us what motivated Mohamad to expel Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula after he seized it with force? I don’t see anything else besides cowardice, ignorance, lukewarmness in those who actually defend Islam by divorcing it from acts of violence carried out in its name, and go as far as labeling it a ‘religion of peace’ Of course, I say this while I myself am an Iraqi Catholic.

  • Mollie

    I thought Paul Marshall had a helpful roundup of threats to Coptic Christians as it relates to this massacre:

  • Julia


    There is some kind of intellectual disconnect regarding the Near East. How is the US supposed to countenance what is going on in Egypt, much less Iraq?

    Kidnapped wives of Catholic Coptic Priests are claimed to have converted to Islam and are to be handed over – even though they publicly deny converting? And the murder of innocent people in an Iraqi Catholic Church is supposed to scare people into turning over these women?

    Egypt is supposed to be an ally of the US. How are we going to respond to what’s going on in the Muslim countries that are not allied with the US? Don’t we speak up in either case? Is this not as important as birth control and abortion?

    Again – women are pawns. I never thought I’d say something like that. But it’s true – women are vulnerable and of less value strategically, as are children. Why are their fates less important in global political calculus?

  • Julia

    Someone asked about the bishop. He had not yet returned from the Synod in Rome.

    The funeral ceremony of Father Thair Sad-alla Abd-al and Father Waseem Sabeeh Al-kas Butros (photo) will be held tomorrow in Baghdad in the Chaldean church of St. Joseph not far from the Syriac Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation, the scene of the massacre of dozens of people who were in it for the Sunday evening celebration of Holy Mass.

    (Our Lady of Salvation is the cathedral church of Baghdad’s nearly 9,000-member Syriac-Catholic community.)

    “We still don’t know who will celebrate the funeral ceremony,” Bishop Shleimun Warduni, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar (the assistant of the Church’s leader, Cardinal Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly) told journalists today. “There will surely be the patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Cardinal Delly,” he said, “and Msgr. Georges Casmoussa, the Syriac Catholic bishop of Mosul, while we don’t know if there will be Msgr. Athanase Mati Shaba Matoka, the Syriac Catholic bishop of Baghdad, who at the time of the attack had not yet returned to Iraq after the Synod for the Middle East in Rome.”

    Link courtesy of Whispers in the Logia:

    Rocco has more details, including some of the incredible speech given by Bishop Matoka at the Synod which the MSM ignored.

  • Julia

    Here’s the direct link to the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Baghdad’s speech at the synod in Rome:

    He starts with the 2,000 yr old history of Christianity in his part of the world. Then moves on to the present.

    The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels. Churches were blown up, bishops and priests and lay persons were massacred, many were the victims of aggression. Doctors and businessmen were kidnapped, others were threatened, storage places and homes were pillaged…

    Perhaps the acuity with which Christianity was targeted has been lightened during the last two years, but there still is the fear of the unknown, insecurity and instability, as well as the continuation of emigration, which always makes this question arise: what is the future of Christian existence in this country should this situation continue, more so because the civil authorities are so weak. The tears are continuous between the different religious and political composing elements, as well as external influence by external powers, especially neighboring countries.

    Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians.

    We want to sound the alarm. We ask the question of the great powers: is it true what is said that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians and that Iraq is one of the victims?

  • Julia

    The Bishop’s speech was given on October 17, 2010 and was ignored in the West except for Rocco Palmo and John Allen.

  • Jerry

    Perhaps our friend Jerry here can tell us what motivated Mohamad to expel Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula after he seized it with force?

    That statement is totally wrong. The Arabian peninsula was conquered after his death for one.

    Also, the history of the tribal conflicts in Mecca and Medina during that time is one of conflict, treaties and betrayals of treaties on the part of some Jewish tribes. is a good account of Muslim-Jewish relationships during that period including pointing out that Jewish tribes that kept their treaties stayed in the region.

    And a well-balanced historical overview also includes the massacres of Muslims by Christians during the Crusades. And it includes the entire history of what we now call “ethnic cleansing” which sadly has persisted much too long.

    The sad thing is how many are ignorant of history not only in the US but overseas as well. And many Muslims are as ignorant of the Quran as Christians are about what is in the Bible. And it’s worse when ignorant people celebrate their ignorance. I’ve mentioned it before, but during a debate I had with an Islamist once, I challenged him to accept that the state of Israel has the sanction of Allah because of what the Quran says: 17:100-104 one translation of which is:

    And We said to the Children of Israel after him: “Dwell in the land, then, when the final and the last promise comes near [i.e. the Day of Resurrection or the descent of Christ ['Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary) on the earth]. We shall bring you altogether as mixed crowd (gathered out of various nations)

  • Julia

    Speaking of ignorant of history.

    Conceding that there were Muslims killed by Christians during the Crusades – that would be Christians from the West and not the in situ Christians who had been there for many centuries before the Arab Muslims arrived on the scene. And were present for eons before the Christian era.

    Give me a link to an authoritative account of a massacre of Muslims by Christians native to the region.

    Check out how quickly the native Christian population of the Near East was halved in the early part of the 20th Century and by whom.