Episcopal priest in Syria recounts experience of U.S. embassy attack

September 14, 2006

The Rev. Bob Blackwell and wife Kay, appointed missionaries of the Episcopal Church who live in Damascus, Syria, were at their home on September 12 when Syrian guards foiled an attempt by suspected Al Qaeda-linked militants to blow up the U.S. embassy.

The guards exchanged fire outside the compound's walls with gunmen who tried to storm in with automatic weapons and hand grenades.

No Americans were hurt and the embassy was not damaged in the midmorning attack, according to an Associated Press report.

The Blackwells serve the English-speaking congregation of All Saints Episcopal Church. The only English-speaking Protestant congregation in Syria, All Saints is a part of the Episcopal Diocese in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

Blackwell sent the following account of the attack and life in Damascus to the Episcopal Church Center on September 13:

Living in the embassy section of Damascus, we thought we were safe. There are security guards in front of every building and security cameras monitoring the street. The Chinese and Iraqi embassies are directly across the street from our house. The U.S. Embassy is a half a block away at the main intersection. There are two elementary schools on either side of our four-story apartment building. Nobody would ever try an attack in this area, we were sure.

I found out how strict security was the first month we were in Damascus. I walked out on our front steps and took a picture of the American flag flying over the embassy. It was a beautiful sight for someone who had never lived overseas before. Before I could turn to go back in my door, there was an armed security guard asking for my camera. The picture had to be erased. Our neighborhood is safe and secure, and we are thankful for that.

During the riots that occurred around the Danish Embassy because of the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, one of our guards warned me one day, as I started out for a walk, I had better stay in that day. The guards always watch out for us. They courteously direct people to our home and office, if they are looking for the "American priest.”

On September 12, I was sitting on our patio, waiting for my wife Kay to return from her exercise class, for us to do our morning Bible Study. I was having my coffee, listening to the children from the schools play at recess. Kay got home early, because a friend had given her ride. She was about to sit down with her coffee, when we heard the first shots fired. We have heard gunshots here before, so we knew what it was. Only this time it sounded like it was right in front of our apartment. We hit the floor and crawled into the house. By this time, there was an explosion and the sound of constant machine-gun fire. I lowered the wooden shutters which cover our windows and doors, and we moved into the hallway, away from any windows. For twenty minutes there was constant gun fire and explosions (later we found out these were grenades). The sound was not just from the end of the street by the embassy but all up and down our street. My first thought was that there was sectarian shooting among the Iraqis who line up in front of their embassy. We could hear the school children screaming as their teachers led them back inside to safety.

There were never any sirens, but there were many voices of men out in the street in front of our house. We could not see out because of our wooden blinds. I began to call the families of parishioners who had spouses working at the embassy, and found out that it had been an attack on the U.S. Embassy. They were upset, and we prayed. They all had received word that there were no American casualties, but several casualties and injuries of those outside the embassy. As it turned out, several of the Syrian security guards who protect us on a daily basis had been injured, one was killed (probably the one who prevented the terrorist from detonating his truck bomb), an Iraqi couple standing in line in front of their embassy had been shot, and a Chinese diplomat watching from the roof of the Chinese Embassy was injured from shrapnel. Four terrorists were killed by the Syrian security officers.

We stayed in the house the rest of the day, although I opened the blinds within two hours after the attack to see parents walking their school children away from the scene, guards cleaning the streets and continuing their investigation.

We sent emails to our family and friends to let them know we were okay. And by early afternoon (our time; early morning EST) our phone began to ring from parishioners around the city, and friends from home checking to make sure we were okay.

Although the embassy has issued a "caution" for American citizens, until the investigation is complete, the day-after life is pretty much back to normal. We went for our morning walk; Kay went to exercise and another meeting. And I worked on this week's sermon. We canceled a church trip to Maloula, a Christian town close to Damascus, for the celebration of Holy Cross Day, but we will go next year.

It was a scary morning, not knowing what was happening. It is humbling to know the young boys (most are 19-21 years old) who guard us each day were willing to risk their lives for us. It is a sad reminder that there is still much hate in this world, but heartening to know that the reason we are here is to develop relationships that will overcome that hate, and see respect, love and understanding flourish. I was glad to hear our Secretary of State offer condolences and appreciation to the Syrian security forces who protected our embassy, and our lives on a daily basis. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new relationship between our two countries.