By Carol Glatz
A deadly militant siege of the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad was a "savage" act of "absurd violence," Pope Benedict XVI said.
The pope urged international and national authorities and all people of good will to work together to end the "heinous episodes of violence that continue to ravage the people of the Middle East." The attack occurred Oct. 31 as about 100 people gathered for Sunday Mass.
"I pray for the victims of this absurd violence, which is even more savage because it struck defenseless people, gathered in God's house, which is a house of love and reconciliation," Pope Benedict said after praying the Angelus with pilgrims in St. Peter's Square Nov. 1, the feast of All Saints.
The following day, he sent a telegram to Baghdad as Catholics held funerals for two priests and several others among the 58 people killed in the violence.
"Deeply saddened by the violent deaths of so many faithful and of Fathers Tha'ir Saad and Boutros Wasim, I want to participate spiritually in the funeral while I pray that these brothers and sisters would be welcomed into the mercy of Christ in the Father's house," the pope said.
"For years, this beloved country has suffered unspeakable pain, and even the Christians have become the objects of savage attacks which, with total disrespect for life, the inviolable gift of God, try to undermine trust and civil coexistence," he said.
"I renew my appeal that the sacrifice of these brothers and sisters of ours may be seeds of peace and of true rebirth and so that all those who have at heart reconciliation and a coexistence marked by fraternity and solidarity would find reasons and strength to work for good," the pope said.
On Nov. 1, Pope Benedict renewed his urgent call for peace in the Middle East.
While peace may be a gift of God, "it is also the result of efforts by people of good will and national and international institutions," he said.
"May everyone unite their efforts so as to end all violence," he said.
Armed militants wearing explosives first set off a car bomb across the street, killing two people in front of the Baghdad Stock Exchange. Then they stormed the church, killing another two people, according to reports.
The militants, who said they were part of the Islamic State of Iraq --- a group with suspected ties to al-Qaida --- held parishioners and priests hostage in the hopes of leveraging the release of prisoners from their network. The terrorists demanded prisoners linked to al-Qaida be set free from detention in Iraq and Egypt and they threatened to blow up the church if military forces attempted to break the siege.
After a standoff that lasted hours, Iraqi forces stormed the cathedral, and the ensuing firefight and a series of explosions left the 58 dead and 75 injured.
Unconfirmed reports said a third priest was among those who died at the hospital.
Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan was in Canada when the blasts occurred. In an e-mail to Catholic News Service Nov. 1 while he was en route to Baghdad, he criticized the lack of security for Christian places of worship and called on "Iraqi parties to overcome their personal and confessional interests and look for the good of the Iraqi people who have elected them."
"There are a few churches and Christian institutions left in Baghdad, not so great a number that it is not unreasonable for them to be protected, security-wise," he said, noting that the security being provided by the government is "far less than what we have hoped for and requested."
"Christians are slaughtered in Iraq, in their homes and churches, and the so-called 'free' world is watching in complete indifference, interested only in responding in a way that is politically correct and economically opportune, but in reality is hypocritical," said the patriarch, who served as bishop of the New Jersey-based Syrian-rite diocese in the United States and Canada from 1995 until his election as patriarch in 2009.
The patriarch demanded "that the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the International Commission for Civil Rights and the League of Arabic States" condemn the actions at the church and "take the appropriate action to defend innocent Christians brutally singled out because of their religion, in Iraq and some other Middle Eastern countries."
Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad told Vatican Radio Oct. 31 that at least one child was killed in the incident.
During the siege, he asked people to pray that God would give the hostage-takers the grace to take into consideration the women, children and all the innocent who were threatened by their actions.
Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told reporters at the time of the siege that "it's a very sad situation, which confirms the difficult situation in which Christians live in the country."
"Christians live with great insecurity and we express our solidarity with them," he said.
Iraqi bishops had just participated in a special Synod of Bishops Oct. 10-24 with the pope at the Vatican; the synod drew attention to the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East.
During the synod, Iraqi bishops said kidnappings for ransom, bombings of churches and other Christian buildings and a general lack of security have made life so precarious for the vulnerable Christian community that about half have left their homeland for safer destinations in the past seven years.
At least one bishop raised the question of systematic attacks as part of a "plan" to drive all Christians from the Middle East.
The cathedral and four other churches were the target of a string of bombings Aug. 1, 2004, when parishioners were leaving Sunday Mass; 15 people were killed in those attacks.
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed solidarity and promised prayers for the Christians of Iraq "at this terrible time of loss and horrific violence."
In a Nov. 2 statement, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the U.S. government --- having invaded Iraq and later withdrawn all combat troops --- "has a moral obligation not to abandon those Iraqis who cannot defend themselves."
"While we welcomed the end of U.S.-led combat in Iraq," the cardinal said, "we share the Iraqi bishops' concern that the United States failed to help Iraqis in finding the political will and concrete ways needed to protect the lives of all citizens, especially Christians and other vulnerable minorities, and to ensure that refugees and displaced persons are able to return to their homes safely."
Cardinal George quoted many of the comments by Iraqi bishops at the recently concluded Synod of Bishops for the Middle East at the Vatican and recalled Pope Benedict XVI's closing remarks calling peace "an indispensable condition for a life of dignity for individuals and society."
"We stand with the bishops, church and people of Iraq in their urgent search for greater security, freedom and protection," he said. "We call upon the United States to take additional steps to help Iraq protect its citizens, especially the most vulnerable."