A delegation of Catholic bishops and Christian leaders of all denominations expressed their dismay over the suffering inflicted on Iraq’s Christian community when they met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Nov. 4.

The meeting followed a fierce terrorist attack on Christians worshipping in the Syrian Catholic church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad on Oct. 31. The atrocity, perpetrated by an umbrella group of Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda, claimed 60 lives and injured more than 80 others, making it the worst single act of violence against Iraqi Christians for decades.

Pope Benedict XVI deplored the attack Nov. 1, calling it “absurd violence” and “even more ferocious in that it has been inflicted upon defenseless people gathered in God’s house, which is a house of love and reconciliation.” Three priests as well as women and children were also victims.

The following day, the Holy Father wrote to the Syrian archbishop of Baghdad, Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka, to say he was “deeply moved by the violent deaths of so many faithful and of the reverend priests Thaer Abdal and Boutros Wasim.” Father Raphael Qatin, also wounded during the raid, died later in hospital. Expressing his closeness to and prayers for all the bereaved, he noted the many years of suffering Iraq’s Christians have endured, and renewed his appeal that the sacrifice of those who have lost their lives “can be seeds of peace and a true rebirth.”

The attack took place in the late afternoon on the eve of the feast of All Saints when many of the congregation were still inside the church after celebrating Sunday Mass. According to reports, gunmen blasted their way through the concrete barriers and barbed wire around the church, killing two security guards at the nearby stock exchange building. They then took 120 hostages inside the building. The reports say that at around 9pm, an Iraqi emergency response unit, with a small number of American troops, began a raid on the church. But the attackers detonated suicide vests as police tried to enter the building. A hostage said afterwards that one of the murdered priests lost his life while attempting to negotiate with the hostage-takers.

The “Islamic State of Iraq” terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack and called for the release of two Egyptian Coptic Christian women who, it claims, have converted to Islam but are being held in a convent. They also voiced their anger at the burning of the Quran. According to The New York Times, one of the murdered priests, Father Abdal, had made known weeks before his deep concerns over backlash unleashed by the plans of Protestant pastor Terry Jones to burn the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Although Jones backed down, anti-Christian hatred had already been stirred by the widespread advance publicity, and Father Abdal’s fears proved correct. “He lives in a society that protects humans and religious beliefs,” Father Abdal is reported to have said of Jones at the time. “Why would he want to harm Christians in Iraq? This is dangerous. He should realize that we live in cultures of various denominations, especially in Iraq.”

Jesuit Father Philippe Luisier, a professor of Coptic language and literature at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, told the Register Nov. 2 that the attack was “disconcerting” coming only a week after the conclusion of the special meeting of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. “This senseless violence is aimed at firstly discouraging the Christian presence in Iraq and secondly at awakening in the Western world equally violent reactions,” he said. “We must resist this double temptation.”

He underlined that the synod wished to give a message of hope to the Christians of the Middle East “who inhabit this land and who have always been and should be full citizens in their respective countries.” Asked how Christians in the West can help Iraq’s Catholics, he said the first duty is to pray for all these churches and show solidarity in faith. He added that parishes in the West and in Iraq and the Middle East “could facilitate an exchange (spiritual, cultural or material) and offer practical assistance so that all Christians can live where they are.”

In a Nov. 3 interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, the Syriac Catholic archbishop of Mosul, George Casmoussa, said the West can do “much” to help Iraq’s Catholics, “beginning with the United States, which has a moral duty to protect Iraq’s religious minorities.”

He added: “It was America which created this situation: With military intervention, it pursued its own economic and geopolitical interests in the region, but has left us at the mercy of fundamentalist terror and violence. Who is to protect us now?”

Until Sunday’s atrocity, the number of attacks against Christians was said to be diminishing in Iraq. But the ongoing violence has forced two-thirds of the country’s Christians to flee, or be displaced, since the war began in 2003.

Just a few weeks prior to the attack, at the Middle East synod, the region’s bishops issued many warnings about the violence. Archbishop Matoka noted that seven years have passed since the Iraq War began, and “Christianity is still bleeding.”

“Where is the world’s conscience?” he asked. “All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians. We want to sound the alarm.”

Greek-Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Antioch warned that if the region is emptied of Christians it would herald “a new clash of cultures, of civilizations and even of religions, a destructive clash between the Muslim Arab East and the Christian West.”

This was the overriding concern of John Paul II, who feared these consequences of the Iraq War, and was the reason which ultimately drove him to so forcefully oppose it.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.