Anglican leadership in Iraq feared dead

Baghdad, Iraq - The entire lay leadership team of the main Anglican church in Iraq is presumed to have been killed after they were attacked while returning from a conference in Jordan.

The team of five Iraqi-born Anglicans including the lay pastor and his deputy, should have returned two weeks ago from the conference.

Canon Andrew White, of the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East, who is the clergyman in charge of the church, said: "Anglican leaders in Baghdad have been missing for two weeks and they are presumed dead."

Those missing include Maher Dakel, the lay pastor; his wife, Mona, who leads the women's section of the church; their son Yeheya; the church's pianist and music director, Firas Raad; the deputy lay pastor; and their driver, whose name has not been disclosed.

Canon White last heard news of the five on September 13, when he was told that they had been attacked the day before while returning from Jordan on the notoriously dangerous road between Ramadi and Fallujah.

"It is the most dangerous area in Iraq," he said. "One of two things must have happened. They either got kidnapped or they died. But we have had no ransom demand or anything."

He said other members of the church had been convinced they had been taken to hospital by the Americans, which was one reason they had not released the news for so long. But repeated checks with the US forces and the Pentagon had drawn a blank.

The loss brings to 12 the number of Iraqis that Canon White has lost in his reconciliation work in Iraq, although these are the first connected to the church. He did not think they were targeted because they were Anglicans.

"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."

Canon White, until recently the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Middle East, and who helped reopen St George's in Baghdad after the Iraqi war in 2003, said: "We are all devastated. This is the very core of our Anglican Church in Iraq. With such a large congregation of about 800 strong, losing key leadership will be devastating."

Though none of the congregation is traditionally Anglican, the church now has one of the largest congregations in Baghdad.

The Right Rev Colin Bennetts, Bishop of Coventry, said: "I find this news particularly sad and poignant. When we first visited Iraq in 1999 it was my privilege to preach at the re-opening of St George’s Church in the centre of Baghdad. We all saw this as a sign of hope and a new beginning under the desperate and despotic regime of Saddam.

"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. I urge Christians everywhere to continue to pray for the Church in Iraq in these even more troublesome times."

News of the tragedy was released 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. She blew herself up today outside an army recruiting centre, killing at least seven people and wounding 37.