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Iraqi survivors tell of hiding in priests' dressing room amid gunfire, blasts

As the siege began, dozens piled into the room in the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad. Those who couldn't find hiding places were killed by militants. The toll is at 58.

November 02, 2010|By Raheem Salman and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad — Around 5:20 p.m., as the Christian worshipers stood and recited "Upon this rock I will build my church," the gunfire started on the street outside.

Father Thar advised everyone to stay seated and to keep praying, but Madeline Mikhal and others rushed from their pews.

Suddenly a large explosion rocked Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Bullets whistled by. Some worshipers ran to the church basement. Mikhal darted into the priests' changing room. A barrage of bullets thundered in the main hall.

Many parishioners dived beneath the pews seeking cover. But the dozen or so gunmen, some wearing vests covered with explosives and carrying grenades and other weapons, took aim at the scrambling congregation.

"Those who couldn't find a place to hide were killed," Mikhal said.

She was among more than 70 people who pressed together in the priests' dressing room. The group blocked the door with a dresser, and knocked out the fluorescent lights and waited in the dark. One of the priests, Father Rafael, had taken shelter with them. Mikhal spotted Baan Selim, a relative through marriage.

"Oh Mary, Christ, God, please protect us," they whispered and sobbed.

The attack came during a Sunday evening Mass celebrating the church's founding. And even in a place where a sectarian war has killed hundreds in car bombings, executions and mass kidnappings, the seizure of the Syrian Catholic Church, with 120 worshipers inside, ranked among the worst acts in the country's recent history.

At least 58 people were killed, including parishioners and security forces, in an assault by militants apparently affiliated with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. At least 75 more were wounded.

The attack was widely denounced, with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki condemning it as an attempt to drive Iraq's small Christian community out of the country, and Pope Benedict XVI calling it "senseless violence, made even more ferocious because it struck defenseless people who were gathered in the house of God."

Officials said special forces joined police to enter the church after they heard gunfire. Some observers wondered whether the move by authorities was wise. Younadem Kana, a Christian member of the Iraqi parliament, reportedly condemned the actions by special forces and police as "hasty" and "not professional."

For survivors like Mikhal and Selim, who swore Monday that they would never again step foot in an Iraqi church, the immediate goal was finding a way to leave the country. The place they loved, a place of faith and rebirth, their sanctuary, had been infected by Iraq's death and bloodshed.

An hour into the attack, militants inside the church roared, "God is great! God is great!" A fresh explosion jolted the building. Screams rang out.

Selim thought a suicide bomber had blown himself up. Mikhal was near Selim and tried to calm her with prayers. People started crying in their hiding place and the gunmen discovered them. Someone lobbed a grenade into the middle of the room.

The explosion left blood everywhere. Some people slumped to the floor. Father Rafael, who shielded Mikhal from the shrapnel, was badly wounded.

"He protected me," she said.

The priest, despite injuries that later required major surgery, remained standing.

"He was encouraging us," Selim said. "He told us to please pray. He never sat down."

Selim, Mikhal and the others started shining their cellphone lights at one another to look at the wounded among them. Some used their phones to reach family.

"Please call the government," Mikhal told her son by phone. "Please call Bolani [Interior Minister Jawad Bolani]. Please call [the Shiite parties] to help us, to save us."

Relatives told them by phone that they'd heard at least two priests were dead. But it was almost impossible to hear anything amid the screams and bursts of weapon fire.

Around 9 p.m., relatives warned by phone that they must lie down, the security forces were coming, they would storm the church.

Selim, Mikhal and the others tumbled over one another as giant blasts rattled the building. Elite security units swung by ropes from helicopters onto the church's roof and broke through the windows, the women said.

People cried, "Please help us! We are Christians!"

In the room, they tore white cloths and waved them as surrender flags, afraid the security forces would think they were the bombers.

By about 10 p.m., the Iraqi forces had opened the door to the dressing room and ordered the hostages up one by one. They stood with their hands in the air. The soldiers checked them for wounds, and led them out. The Iraqi officers guided them with small lights. Selim could make out the bodies by her feet.

"The soldiers tried to raise my head not to look at the ground and see the corpses. I felt I was stepping on bodies," she said. "I noticed the black robe of one of the priests."

On Monday, the women sat in Mikhal's apartment, decorated with paintings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

Selim vowed to leave for Syria or Lebanon or anywhere that would take her.

The Christian community in Iraq, which once numbered more than a million, has dwindled. Hundreds of thousands left the country because of the hardships inflicted on Iraq by Saddam Hussein's wars. And after the 2003 invasion led by the U.S., the community has been hounded by Islamic militants, who have viewed them as U.S. collaborators.

"Most of our families are already outside of Iraq," Mikhal said. "Now we will sell everything in order to leave."

Selim repeated: "I will leave soon. I will go anyplace."

ned.parker@latimes.com

Salman is a staff writer in The Times' Baghdad Bureau.

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