ROME (RNS) A chilling, eyewitness account of a deadly attack on a Catholic nursing home in Yemen has detailed how four nuns were sought out by gunmen who then executed them before destroying the Christian symbols in the residence's chapel.
According to the lone surviving nun, the attackers, allegedly Islamic extremists, entered the complex in Aden at around 8:30 a.m. on March 4 and first killed a guard and driver.
Five Ethiopian Christians were then shot as they ran to warn the nuns, said Sister Sally, who recounted the unfolding details of the 90-minute tragedy to the regional superior of the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Rio.
Sister Rio's handwritten notes were then shared globally and published on Thursday (March 17) by the Catholic news site Crux and reproduced in full at another Catholic news site, Aleteia. Altogether, 16 people were killed in the attack.
Lay workers at the residence screamed "Don't kill the sisters! Don't kill the sisters!" as the attackers entered, looking specifically for the nuns. The assailants were described in the letter as members of “ISIS,” the so-called Islamic State group.
All four of the nuns caught by the gunmen were killed in the same manner, according to the account by Sister Sally, the head of the community: "(Attackers) tied them up, shot them in the head and smashed their heads.”
The dead nuns were identified as Sister Anselm from India, Sister Judith from Kenya, and Rwandans Sister Marguerite and Sister Reginette. Members of the Missionaries of Charity, the order funded by the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, are only identified by their first names.
Following the attack Pope Francis denounced the violence and described the victims as “today’s martyrs."
RELATED STORY: Pope Francis calls murdered nuns in Yemen ‘today’s martyrs’
Sister Sally escaped by hiding behind a door in the refrigerator room, which the gunmen reportedly entered at least three times. "They never saw her. This is miraculous," Sister Rio wrote.
An Indian priest, the Rev. Tom Uzhunnalil, was abducted by the gunmen and is still missing. He apparently sought to consume all the consecrated hosts in the chapel tabernacle before he was taken. The gunmen then destroyed all the Christian symbols and liturgical articles.
Authorities had to convince Sister Sally to leave the area for her safety.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in the Yemen conflict over the past year, according to U.N. figures.
(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)