16 Jan, 2011 The Religious Character of the Massacre at Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad
The massacre of Christians at Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad on October 31 2010 gained extensive world-wide media attention. This Assyrian Catholic church was taken over by jihadis, and during the course of the several hours during which they controlled the church, the insurgents killed many of the worshippers, until the Iraqi army forces finally stormed the building.
I have been viewing reports from survivors of the massacre, posted on YouTube (here, here and here). From these, and earlier published reports (e.g. here), a picture emerges of the jihadis as religiously motivated people who engaged their victims in theological conversations about Islam, and justified their actions based on the Islamic sharia.
It is good to note well the testimony of these survivors, because there is a view, widespread among the secular professional terrorism analysts of Western nations, that contemporary terrorism is not essentially religious in nature, but is a political movement which exploits the religion of Islam to serve what are in reality political goals.
One of the dangers of this rhetoric is that it causes the Western media to overlook or ‘filter out’ incidents of terrorists attacking indigenous Christians (and other religious minorities), because these attacks cannot be accommodated in the category of ‘political violence’.
However there was no political advantage to be gained by killing unarmed Christian worshippers in Baghdad. It was a purely religious act. Thus, according to the survivors, their attackers:
- Cried out Allahu Akbar ‘Allah is greater’ each time they shot Christians.
- Called the Christians kafir ‘infidel’.
- Witnessed to the Christians that Allah is one.
- Said it was halal (religiously permitted in Islam) to kill them, because they were Christians.
- Rebuked their victims for ‘worshipping’ the cross and Christ and told them not to do so, e.g. they said, ‘Don’t worship the cross’.
- Selectively targeted young men for killing: one of the attackers said ‘Don’t leave a young man alive.’ This is in accordance with the laws of jihad, which stipulate that male captives can be killed. Authentic hadiths (traditions) of Muhammad report that when he eliminated the Jews from Medina, he had the men executed. (A Jewish boy called Atiyyah later reported that when an examination revealed he had not yet begun to grow pubic hair, he was allowed to live).
- Declared that they themselves would go to paradise but their Christian victims would go to hell. They seemed to presume that they would be killed as an outcome of the seizure.
- Refused to put a wounded victim out of her misery, by ending her life, although she was begging for this, on the grounds that it was fitting for her to suffer in this life because she was on her way to hell anyway.
- Deliberately targeted Christian symbols for destruction, e.g. destroying crosses and a statue of Christ. (It was a tradition reported by Waqidi that Muhammad would destroy anything he saw which had a cross on it: W. Muir, The life of Muhammad. Volume 3, p.61, note 47.)
Of course many Muslims have been horrified by and deplored this shocking act, as well as several other more recent attacks on Christians in the Middle East. My point is simply that the attackers claimed to be motivated by religious principles, their talk was dominated by religious references, and their behavior was in certain respects consistent with well-documented aspects of Islamic sharia.
This massacre was an attack motivated and shaped by religious principles.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.