The entire lay leadership of St. George's Memorial Church, the Anglican church in Baghdad, is presumed dead after the group went missing in mid-September. They were traveling in the Sunni Triangle, a 100-mile swath from Baghdad north to Tikrit, where 80 percent of insurgent attacks occur.
"There has been no further word about them," said Bishop Clive Handford, who is responsible for the Anglican diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. "We have to presume that they have been killed. There has been no claim of responsibility. In this case, no news is bad news."
The team of five Iraqi-born Christians had been visiting Amman, Jordan, for a church conference.
The party included: Maher Dakel, the principal lay leader and translator; his wife, Mona, who worked with the women in the church; their son, Yehya, a musician; senior assistant Firas Raad; and the group's driver.
If they had been kidnapped, Handford speculated, there would have been a ransom demand. Maybe insurgents were involved, but "there are lots of holdups with robbery, sometimes killing and sometimes not," the bishop said. "Their abduction has had a considerable impact on St. George's congregation. They are very depressed."
Handford said that until recently about 800 people were associated with the congregation. The core group attending Sunday services numbered between 200 to 300 adults. He said only 40 to 50 people now attend on Sundays.
"There isn't an Anglican among them, but Chaldeans and other Christian faith communities gather there because it provides a spiritual lifeline," Handford said. "Even some Muslims have come just to find a place of prayer and spiritual peace."
The only Anglican church in Iraq, St. George's was established in 1936. But for more than a decade before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the church did not function. The church had been completely looted, according to Canon Andrew White, who until recently served as the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Middle East. He helped reopen the church after the war and saw the congregation balloon in size.
Even before St. George's loss, Iraqi Christians have faced intense pressure recently.
"Christians are very afraid," a Jordanian involved in relief efforts in Iraq told CT. He asked CT not to use his name, given the country's volatile security situation. "Numbers in church attendance among the various denominations have gone down significantly because people fear more attacks and kidnapping."
Despite the threat, many Iraqi churches continue to meet.
"St. George's Memorial is the only church in that part of Baghdad," Handford explained. "We're trying to keep it going and have bumped up security significantly. Six or seven guards have been employed at some expense. As long as people want to meet for fellowship, we will do our best to keep it functioning."
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