Suicide Bomber Disguised as Priest Kills Three at Christian Massacre Memorial in Syria

Jun 20, 2016 11:58 AM EDT

A suicide bomber disguised as a priest killed three people at an event commemorating the massacre of Christians more than a century ago in Qamishli, Syria. The assailant is believed to have targeted the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II.

According to Al Arabiya, the attack took place as locals gathered at a hall to commemorate the deaths of tens of thousands of Christians by the Ottoman army starting in 1915 in what is known as the Sayfo ("Sword") massacre. Patriarch Ignatius presided over the event, which was also attended by His Grace Mar Afram Athneil of the Assyrian Church of the East.

The suicide bomber, disguised as a priest, reportedly detonated his bomb when he was questioned by Sutoro security officials at a checkpoint outside a hall, killing himself and three guards, and wounding five others.

One guard told AFP: "The suicide attacker tried to enter the hall where people were gathered but was stopped by local security forces, and he detonated himself among them".

Another said the attacker "detonated himself near our checkpoint after he couldn't reach his real target, Patriarch Ignatius".

Syriac Christians belong to the eastern Christian tradition and pray in Aramaic. They include both Orthodox and Catholic branches, and constitute around 15 percent of Syria's 1.2 million Christians. AINA notes that this incident was the fourth terrorist attack in Wusta, a predominantly Assyrian and Armenian neighborhood in Qamishli.

In May, ISIS militants killed at least five persons, three of them Assyrians, and injured more than a dozen in the district. In January, 3 Assyrians were killed and 20 injured following twin explosions in the neighborhood. Last December, three explosions targeted Assyrian businesses in Qamishli, killing 16 people.

ADFA executive director Steve Oshana said violent incidents have become "too common and are a reminder of the dangers our people face on a daily basis.

"When a place like Qamishli, which in many ways represents the very soul of our existence in our ancestral homeland, comes under attack it underscores the need for us to support our local security forces.

"We made a pledge from the beginning to support any of our people who pick up weapons and risk their lives in defense of our homeland, and it is a pledge that is renewed with each martyr whose young life we deliver to their final resting place."

Despite the continued targeting of Christians, Patriarch Aphrem urged believers to remain in the "homeland of their ancestors."

"The blood of our martyrs has been mixed with the soil of this land, Bethnahrin for many centuries," he said, according to ChristianToday.