Hana Said, 55, will never forget the last conversation she had with her 27-year old son, who had gone down to Baghdad to see relatives. She was at home in Karakosh, capital of the predominantly Christian Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. He was huddled in a side chapel behind a steel door in Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad on Oct. 31, 2010, waiting for Muslim terrorists to murder him.
“Ayoub was telling us what was going on,” she said. “He said he had been wounded, and was begging us to get someone to open the outside door to the chapel so they could be evacuated.”
For several hours, Hana says, she spoke to her son on his cell phone. Then, finally, at around 7:30 pm, he stopped answering the phone.
Later, police told Hana that the terrorists had lobbed a hand grenade over the top of the door into the side chapel, kiling her son and the two. In all, 58 worshippers died while attending church that day, and another 98 were wounded.
Four months later, Hana and her husband continue to mourn Ayoub in their home in Karakosh, where they fled from Mosul a year earlier after jihadi Muslims murdered her husband’s brother. A portrait of the 27-year old Ayoub sits on a chair in their living room. He had just gone down to Baghdad to visit family.
But the story of what happened to Ayoub Adnan Ayoub is much more than just a sad testimony to the persecution Iraqi Christians are enduring on a daily basis at the hands of jihadi Muslim groups. It is also prima facie evidence of criminal malfeasance on the part of the Iraqi government.
“There was an outside door to the side chapel where those people were hiding,” said Yohanna Josef, who made an unsuccessful campaign last year for the Iraqi parliament as an independent. “They could have gone in through that door and rescued many people,” he told Newsmax in an interview at the Ayoub home in northern Iraq. “Instead, they burst in through the front doors and shot everyone in sight.”
Iraqi bloggers and even some politicians have openly accused the Iraqi government for its handling of the Oct. 31 attack.
They point out that the terrorists brought explosives and weapons to the church in cars with dark-tinted windows and no license plates that are only available to officials with high-level security clearance. This allowed them to get waved through checkpoints without being stopped.
They also point to the slow reaction of the security forces, and the botched handling of the rescue attempt itself. It still remains unclear how many of the victims were killed or wounded by the Iraqi rescue team, who opened fire wildly once they burst into the church.
A senior officer in the Iraqi police, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that for the 10 days prior to the attack that the Interior Ministry security forces gradually moved barriers closer to the church, until the terrorists could drive right up in front.
Dr. Duraid Tobiya, who heads the Mosul section of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the largest Christian political party in Iraq, told Newsmax, “I can’t accuse the government directly because I haven’t seen the evidence. But this is what we have heard from survivors and from eyewitnesses who talked to people who were inside.”
Duraid and other secular Christian leaders interviewed in northern Iraq recently believe that the Shiite Dawa party of Prime Minister Nour al-Malaki, which controls the Interior Ministry forces, was complicit in the attack, and that the Iraqi police has become the instrument of the ruling party, not the state.
He pointed out that right after the church massacre, the Baghdad city council, which is also controlled by the Dawa party, passed new laws banning liquor stores, night clubs, and educational associations run by Christians. “Even the universities in Baghdad imposed new dress codes on students and separated classes by sex, like the Taliban.”
The Iraqi police helped produce a four-hour documentary about their investigation into the attack that aired on state-run Iraqiya TV in late January, but it hasn’t made a dent in the suspicions of Christian leaders.
The program features Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef, the director of internal affairs and security in the Iraqi Interior ministry, narrating a series of dramatic reconstructions that have all the allure of a reality TV show.
As Abu Ragheef tells it, the police made their first arrests by accident when the passengers of a sedan aroused their suspicions at a checkpoint. Inside the car, they found CDs that contained videos of the attack. The suspects eventually led the police to a Baghdad safe house where they arrested the 27-year old “wali,” or “prince” of al-Qaida in Iraq, an Iraqi named Huthaifa Sattar al Battawi.
Battawi eventually decided to cooperate with the investigation, Abu Ragheef said, and led them to 19 additional safe houses where the group had hidden large quantities of explosives, pistols fitted with silencers, car bombs, and suicide vests.
By the time the investigation was complete, the police had rounded up dozens of suspects in a series of dramatic raids involving shootouts with men wearing suicide vests, according to an account of the video that appeared in the McClatchy newspapers in the U.S.
Battawi explained that the plotters recruited suicide bombers in Mosul among foreign jihadis, and drove them the 290 miles down to Baghdad using smugglers. They avoided questions at security checkpoints by offering free rides to Iraqi military officers and soldiers who simply flashed their badges to get them waved through the barriers.
Battawi said they had chosen Our Lady of Salvation Church because it was located in Baghdad’s central Karrada neighborhood, close to the offices of international media organizations. “Most of what we need to accomplish our mission in such an operation is media attention,” he said.
The TV show ended in a dramatic confrontation between Battawi and one of the priests from the church. If Muslims considered Christians “people of the book,” the unnamed priest asked, why did they call Christians unbelievers?”
“In all religions, the disagreeing are unbelievers,” Battawi replied. “This is well-known.”
Duraid and other leaders in the north believe the terrorist attacks against Christians are not just carried out on religious grounds, but are also an attempt at driving Assyrians as an ethnic minority out of Iraq.
“We are the indigenous Iraqis,” Duraid said. “So the purpose of these attacks is to destroy the Christians and force us to leave the country. The orders for these terrorist attacks are coming from entities and political parties inside the government.”
The Obama administration has praised the Iraqi government for its handling of the investigation.
“Al-Qaida threatened to attack churches, there was a church attack, and then al-Qaida claimed responsibility,” a senior administration official told Newsmax. “I simply do not believe Maliki or his forces, for all their ills, did this.”
“The U.S. has seen no evidence that the government of Iraq was complicit in the attack on the church. To the contrary, the Iraqi government has universally condemned the attack on the church as well as attacks on Christians and members of all faiths,” a State Department official said.
For Nina Shea, who tracks the persecution of Iraqi Christians and other minorities as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), one thing is clear: “Terrorists have been able to wage ruthless attacks against Iraq’s Christian communities with impunity.”
Despite repeated calls to better protect houses of Christian worship and other community gathering places, “the Iraqi government has failed to protect this defenseless minority and has failed to provide them with the minimum of justice in the wake of horrific assaults that by now constitute a religious cleansing of historic significance,” she told Newsmax.
USCIRF first designated Iraq as a “country of particular concern” in 2008 because of the inability or refusal of the Malaki government to prevent wave after wave of attack against Iraqi Christians.
Countries of Particular Concern are those that USCIRF finds “that commit systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” according to the Commission’s website.
Only 12 countries in addition to Iraq met those criteria in 2010: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
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