Thursday, 29 September 2005
By BosNewsLife News Center
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife) -- The entire lay leadership of Iraq's main Anglican Church was presumed dead Thursday, September 29, amid reports they were attacked while returning from a conference in neighboring Jordan.
The London based The Times newspaper said in its online edition that the team of five Iraqi-born Anglicans, including the lay pastor and his deputy, should have returned two weeks ago from the conference.
In published statements, Canon Andrew White, the clergyman in charge of the Baghdad based St. George's Memorial Church said he had been told the five Anglicans were attacked while returning from Jordan along the notorious road linking the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
It was the same region where five US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi Wednesday, September 28, the US military reportedly said. Adding to the insecurity was news that at least 40 people were killed by a triple suicide car bombing in the Iraqi city of Balad north of Baghdad Thursday, September 29.
A BosNewsLife team traveling previously in the region recalled how people prefer to drive in speeding convoys in the area of Ramadi and Fallujah as cars get often attacked by gunmen. "It is the most dangerous area in Iraq," added White.
The missing Anglican Christians were identified as lay pastor Maher Dakel, his wife Mona, who runs the women's section of the church, their son Yeheya, the church's music director Firas Raad and the deputy lay pastor and their driver.
White, who also works for the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East and was reportedly dubbed 'the Vicar of Baghdad' suggested members of the church were hoping the missing group may have been taken to hospital by American soldiers.
But after checking US forces in Iraq and the Pentagon there has been no news on their fate, he told reporters. White stressed he does not believe they were targeted because of their religion. "The fact is that attacks on people on that road happen all the time, particularly on people who appear to be richer or middle class," he said.
The Right Rev Colin Bennetts, Bishop of Coventry, who attended the opening of St George's Memorial Church after years of closure under the Saddam Hussein regime, described the attacks as "a terrible blow" for the Christian community.
"We all saw this as a sign of hope and a new beginning under the desperate and despotic regime of Saddam," he reportedly said. "Since that time the church has grown from a handful of worshippers to a congregation of hundreds. For them to lose their leadership in this way is a sad and terrible blow."
It comes amid almost daily suicide attacks in Baghdad and other areas and concern over attacks against Christians in the region ahead of a crucial referendum on the constitution. Tens of thousands of Christians fled Iraq, something the St George’s Memorial Church in Baghdad wanted to end with aid and worship services.
The church was established in 1936 but recently re-opened after being forced to close for over a decade under Saddam Hussein.
Immediately after the US-led war in Iraq ended "a service of thanksgiving for the liberation of Iraq" was held and the congregation soon numbered about fifty members made up of the British and US diplomats and military, White said in an open letter monitored by BosNewsLife.
Soon "St. George’s had an instant congregation which was all Iraqi. By Christmas there were regularly over a hundred children and two hundred adults in attendance," White said.
"After the war evangelical missionaries arrived here...The missionaries have now all left. It is now deemed too dangerous for people to visit Iraq. St. George’s, however, grows from strength to strength. What we have is a loving community of people who are desperate to know more of God and his love," he claimed in the letter.
"We are a very poor church. We have no budget, no funding, and no security and yet this is one of the richest churches I have ever been part of. What we have is an assurance that somehow God will provide, and a love that binds us together in adversity."
But it was not immediately clear how St George's Memorial Church would function in the future without its apparently killed lay leadership.
News of the killings came as the insurgency passed another grim milestone, sending its first female suicide bomber into action. The woman wore men's robes to hide the explosives, which were studded with metal balls to cause more injuries, news reports said. She reportedly blew herself up Wednesday, September 28, outside an army recruiting centre, killing at least seven people and wounding 37.
The incident happened in Tal Afar, 420km (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad - scene of a joint US and Iraqi offensive against the militants two weeks ago in which 200 were killed and 315 captured, news reports said. The US army also killed Abdullah Abu Azzam, whom it described as the second in command of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the escalating campaign of suicide bombings. (With Stefan J. Bos BosNewsLife Chief International Correspondent, BosNewsLife Research and reports from Iraq).
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