By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
BAGHDAD (Worthy News) – A bride and groom are among at least 114 people who died at a Christian wedding party in northern Iraq where a fire tore through the hall packed with guests, officials said Wednesday.
Authorities warned the death toll could rise as at least 150 people were injured in the tragedy, seemingly caused by fireworks to celebrate the wedding.
Authorities noted that flammable building materials also contributed to the latest disaster to hit Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, which has faced persecution by Islamic extremists.
The fire happened in the Hamdaniya area of Iraq’s Nineveh province, a mainly Christian region just outside of the city of Mosul, some 335 kilometers (205 miles) northwest of Baghdad, the capital, officials said.
Huge crowds rushed to hospitals to find survivors or donate blood, said Sardar Satter, a local journalist and translator, in comments monitored by Worthy News. “Even though it’s around 03:00 a.m. in Iraq, thousands of people are visiting hospitals to donate blood for more than 200 people injured in [the] Hamdaniyah fire incident,” he wrote, giving a slightly higher number of injured people than mentioned by authorities.
The “Kurdistan Region has deployed dozens of ambulances and healthcare crew to help respond to the deadly fire incident in Hamdaniyah, Iraq,” he added on social platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
The Iraqi Red Crescent reportedly recorded more than 450 casualties but could not show how many had died in the blaze.
Footage seen by Worthy News showed flames rushing over the wedding hall as the fire spread. Later, only charred metal and debris could be seen as people walked through the fire scene, the only light coming from television cameras and the lights of onlookers’ mobile phones.
Survivors arrived at local hospitals, receiving oxygen and bandaged, as their families milled through hallways and outside as workers organized more oxygen cylinders, witnesses saw.
Wedding guest Rania Waad, who sustained a burn to her hand, said that as the bride and groom “were slow dancing, the fireworks started to climb to the ceiling (and) the whole hall went up in flames.”
“We couldn’t see anything,” the 17-year-old recalled, choking back sobs. “We were suffocating, we didn’t know how to get out,” she told media.
“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall,” added Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno. “Those who managed got out, and those who didn’t got stuck. Even those who made their way out were broken.”
Yet they were among the lucky ones. Local
television aired a video with somber music purportedly showing the late, beautiful young couple whose lives were cut short by the disaster, Worthy News monitored.
As the extended size of the overnight tragedy became clear, straightforward questions were asked about the fire, with civil defense officials noting that the wedding hall’s exterior was being decorated with highly flammable illegal cladding.
“The fire led to the collapse of parts of the hall due to the use of highly flammable, low-cost building materials that collapse within minutes when the fire breaks out,” civil defense said.
It wasn’t immediately clear why authorities in Iraq allowed the cladding to be used on the hall. Still, critics said corruption and mismanagement remain endemic two decades after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Similar cladding was blamed for other tragedies, such as the 2017 Grenfell Fire in London that killed 72 people in the most significant loss of life in a fire on British soil since World War II, as well as multiple high-rise fires in the United Arab Emirates.
The overnight fire was the latest disaster to strike Iraq’s shrinking Christian minority, which over the past two decades has been violently targeted by extremists, first from al-Qaida and then the Islamic State militant group.
Numerous churches were destroyed, and many Christians were killed and injured in attacks
Although the Nineveh plains, the historic homeland of Christians, recaptured from the Islamic State group six years ago, some towns are still mostly rubble and lack essential services. Many Christians have left for Europe, Australia, or the United States, while many live as refugees elsewhere in the Middle East.
The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 150,000, compared to 1.5 million in 2003. Iraq’s total mainly Muslim population is more than 40 million, according to official estimates.
The area where the tragedy took place was the scene of a visit by Pope Francis in March 2021, who has expressed concern about Christians in Iraq.
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