Middle East

Finding refuge in France after Iraq cathedral carnage

A woman weeps at the service in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil
Image caption Members of the congregation wept

In the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, there was a Christmas service last week to remember those who died in the cathedral massacre in Baghdad.

Sitting in the congregation were survivors, family members and the injured.

And beyond them, pinned to the flowers on the altar, were photographs of their friends and relatives - victims of the October attack.

In all, 44 Iraqi Christians died in the Syriac Cathedral of Baghdad, including two of the resident priests.

The gunmen, from a group linked to al-Qaeda, took around 100 people hostage.

At the end of the siege, they detonated suicide vests amid the women and children cowering in the pews.

Shot through the back

Elias Habash was shot through the back while trying to resuscitate one of the two priests, Fr Waseem Thaeer.

"He was one of the first to be killed," he said.

"I had known him since I was a child. Our fathers were good friends. I rushed over to help him. 'Father, Father', I shouted.

"But at the moment I knelt down, then came the burning pain in my stomach. There was blood all over my shirt."

Elias passed out within minutes of being shot but he remembers quite clearly the scenes of carnage that were unfolding around him.

"First they shot the men," he said.

"Then they turned their guns on the women and the children. One pointed his gun at the children. Their mother pulled them close, protecting them. So they shot her through the back. She sacrificed herself for her children."

Cramped hostel

Elias has since had part of his intestine removed.

He lives in a cramped Paris hostel with his brother. On his dresser are the photos of his young son and a daughter who remain behind in Baghdad.

He told me he could not say much about the situation in Iraq as his family was still there and he was concerned for their safety.

"But the world needs to know that we are the victims in Baghdad. The Sunnis and the Shia attack each other but they are wary because each side has its own militia. We have no-one to protect us. Not even the government.

"Of course we feel angry but I don't feel any sense of bitterness. Our religion is one based on love and forgiveness."

Of 35 Iraqis who were evacuated to France, nine still remain in hospital. They are the frail and the most seriously injured.

But what do they do now? They are detached from their livelihoods, their community and their church. As good as the care is in Paris, they are dealing with this trauma in a country where most do not speak the language.

The psychiatric help they require is difficult to provide and some need it every day.

Huda lost two sons: one of the priests and his brother who tried to save him. She speaks from hospital with her eyes firmly shut, the tears rolling down her cheeks.

"We were in that church for four hours. I am almost hysterical when I think about it.

"When I think about how they blew themselves up. I cry all the time. I pray to forget. But I am sorry I can't forgive them."

France says the Iraqis who are here will be given six months' asylum, and potentially full refugee status.

But for those now living in exile there is very little to celebrate this Christmas. More than ever they are a beleaguered minority - still to experience any of the peace promised in post-war Iraq.