JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The National Catholic Reporter
The tragedy in Beslan, Russia, was much on people’s minds in Milan. The most dramatic references came in a session with Feofan Ashurkov, the Orthodox bishop whose Stavropol diocese includes the town of Beslan. By coincidence, he had been invited to the congress months ago.
Commenting on the brutality of those who commandeered the school, Feofan said that when a pediatrician arrived and asked permission to check on the children, the response came back that he could enter but he would not come out alive.
“They put a wire in the gym, and attached children and grenades to the wire, as if it were a kind of wreath,” he said. “They also mined the entire perimeter.”
Feofan described some of the horrors the children in the school experienced.
“They killed the men first, and forced the older children to throw the corpses of their parents out the window,” he said.
The bishop said he was asked by authorities to wait in an operations center, but became frustrated and returned to the school. Just as he got there, he said, the shooting started.
“I saw a naked teenager, with a bloody leg, who couldn’t stand up on his own,” he said. “I literally took him in my arms and put him in my car. Exactly in that moment, one of the soldiers next to me who was fighting against the terrorists was hit by a bullet and fell.”
“I took the young man to the hospital and came back. At the time, the shooting had dropped off, and I saw something terrible that I will probably never forget,” he said. “Because of the bombs the terrorists had placed, a roof had collapsed and caught fire. The majority of the children who died were killed by this explosion. I saw those little burned bodies, one on top of the other … what I felt! It was a profound feeling of suffering and sadness.”
In the hospital, Feofan said, the doctors told him that most of the children who were wounded had been hit in the back, because the terrorists shot at them as they tried to run away.
“These were not men,” Feofan said of the terrorists. “Only devils masquerading as men could carry out such misdeeds.”
Feofan’s agony was obvious.
“The first thing I said to the people is to ask forgiveness,” he said. “I’m also guilty. Maybe this happened because I prayed badly, or not enough.”
Now, he said, the challenge is not letting this violence breed further tragedy.
“The most important thing is to save the people from uncontrolled rage,” he said. “We have to avoid ethnic conflict,” referring to generalized anger about Muslims.
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