RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNS) — Hundreds of Palestinian Catholics in Ramallah and Bethlehem attended special Masses in memory of the more than 50 Iraqis killed in an attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad and called for protection for Christians in the Middle East.
In Iraq, Christian leaders met with the nation’s prime minister to discuss the problem of security for Christian places of worship.
In front of the altar at Holy Family Parish in Ramallah Nov. 5, members of the Catholic Scouts held signs calling for an end to the massacre in Iraq and the killing of innocents. A sign on one of three flower wreaths propped against the pulpit proclaimed, “To our beloved victims in Iraq, Christians and Muslims.” On the steps of the altar, small lit candles spelled out the words “Iraq” and “Palestine.”
Outside the church, Maral Shatara, 20, painted Iraqi flags and crosses on the faces of young Catholic Scouts.
“This was something very bad, not just because they were Christian but because we are all human beings and no one has the right to take another life. There is no guarantee that it won’t happen here,” she said, referring to the Oct. 31 attacks that left 58 people dead and at least 75 injured.
Shatara said tensions between Muslims and Christians had not escalated to murder.
“I am not afraid, but for sure we have to be careful. Of course I would prefer that there be more security around the church. Most religions feel that Christians are a good target for them. Our society is better than Iraq, but for sure we have fears,” she said.
Father Faysal Hijazen, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Ramallah, read a joint statement from Christian and Muslim residents of Ramallah condemning the attack and calling for respect for human life and places of worship. The statement urged the international community to take action against such attacks.
“We are living in a perilous time that is undermining our existence here as well as our religions and our countries,” they said. “We demand the protection of the role of religious worship which has been exposed to vicious attacks in these days by fanatics who have betrayed their religion. It is our duty to turn the eyes of the whole world toward the tragic situation that some of the Christian communities in the Middle East are facing, particularly in Iraq and Egypt. They are burdened with all sorts of hardships, sometimes reaching the point of martyrdom.
“We call for lasting cooperation between Christians and Muslims in our shared struggle against every kind of fundamentalism and violence in the name of religion,” said the statement.
The same day in Baghdad, a delegation of Iraqi Catholics, headed by Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly, Chaldean patriarch, and Syrian Archbishop Athanase Matoka of Baghdad, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said the prime minister asked the bishops to work closely with Iraqi security forces for protection of their churches.
Iraqi Christians returned to the Syrian cathedral for Mass Nov. 7 amid beefed up security. Fides, the news agency of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, reported that while the church interior had been cleaned, bloodstains were still visible on the walls.
Sources told Fides that people attending the Mass wore black robes as a sign of mourning and carried lit candles to remember those killed. The lit candles were placed in the form of a large cross in the middle of the aisle, next to the names and photos of the dead, Fides reported.
Father Mukhlas Habash, who celebrated the Mass Nov. 7, called on the faithful to pray for the victims and their attackers and recalled Jesus’ commandment to “love your enemies,” the news agency said.
Fides said eyewitnesses heard one of the victims, Father Tha’ir Saad, tell the attackers “Kill me, not this family with children,” as he used his body to shield them.
Vatican Radio reported that Iraqi bishops also looked to the faithful of France for hope, entrusting themselves to the protection and intercession of the church of Our Lady of Lourdes.
“We are in need of your prayer and your moral and fraternal support. Your friendship encourages us to remain in our land, to preserve, and to hope. Without that we feel isolated,” said a message from the Iraqi bishops to the prelates in France.
Elsewhere, Iraqi Christians held silent marches in remembrance of those killed, reported Vatican Radio. The rallies, held in Detroit, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Toronto, London, Cairo, Sydney and other cities, demanded increased protection for Christians in Iraq.
Contributing to this story was Rita Fitch at the Vatican.