A SERVICE at the Anglican Cathedral in Brussels went ahead on Tuesday as an “act of defiance” during the terrorist attacks in the city, which killed at least 34 people and injured hundreds more.
The midday chrism eucharist was due to be attended by clergy and churchpeople from across the diocese in Europe. But, as bombs exploded at both Brussels Airport and a city-centre metro station, the city went into lockdown.
The emergency services rushed to both locations. But the cathedral service went ahead as planned. The Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe, the Ven. Colin Williams, who preached at the service, said that the city closed around him as he arrived in Brussels.
“I made my way on foot to the cathedral, and the service went ahead with depleted numbers. Colleagues from Copenhagen, Helsinki, and other places couldn’t get to Brussels.
“Sirens sounded and helicopters hovered overhead. Going ahead with the service felt like an act of defiance, and, as the eucharist began, we lit candles to show again that the light had come into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
In Nice, the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, had gathered other clergy from across the diocese for their own chrism eucharist. He tweeted: “Deep feelings and prayer for Brussels . . . as we bless the oil of healing.”
Belgian officials confirmed later on Tuesday that two suicide bombers had blown themselves up inside the airport terminal building, reportedly near the American Airlines check-in desks, early in the morning.
There was another explosion at the Maelbeek station, which is a short walk from the European Union’s Brussels headquarters.
Reports suggest that the two attacks killed at least 34 people and injured another 250.
Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement issued via its own news agency mid-afternoon. They said that IS fighters opened fire with rifles inside the airport before blowing themselves up, and that another suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside the metro station.
The two suicide bombers have been named in the Belgian media as brothers Khalid and Brahim el-Bakraoui. CCTV images showed them at the airport with a third man, who was not killed at the scene. He is now being sought by the security forces.
Earlier, the Brussels airport Orthodox chaplain, Bishop Athenagoras Peckstadt, told Premier Radio that he had been stopped from entering the airport.
“I knew very soon after the first explosion that something had happened. More people tried to call me to ask if I’m OK. The atmosphere in Belgium is very bad.”
The police sealed off both sites quickly and shut down the entire metro system. Trains coming into the city from further afield were also turned back.
The Revd Paul Needle, a communications officer with the diocese in Europe, was on a Eurostar train heading for Brussels and the Cathedral service. As news filtered through to the passengers of the ongoing terror attack, there was anxiety within the train he said.
“There was a lot of nervousness. I saw people running off the train at Lille; there was confusion and anxiety. I stayed on because I thought I could still get to the service.”
But eventually the train was stopped from entering Brussels as the authorities shut down all transport networks in the city. About ten hours after he left his home in England at 5 a.m. this morning, he arrived back, where he said his first job would be to call diocesan colleagues in Brussels to check they were safe.
Many of those heading to the Cathedral service would have been landing at the airport, but Mr Needle said he hoped none would have been caught up in the bombing there as the attack took place in the departures area, not arrivals.
The Bishop in Europe’s office in Brussels thanked people for their prayers and said that all staff were safe. “But we are aware of much distress in the city,” they said in a tweet.
Once again, the city of Brussels was in lockdown, Mr Needle also said. “Right now, it is not exactly the most wonderful place to be.”
Just days ago, one of the ringleaders of the terror cell that launched the Paris attacks in November, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested by police in a suburb of Brussels. Police had warned that some of his accomplices were still on the run, but it was not known if the latest atrocity was perpetrated by the same group.
Belgium has seen more people join jihadists in Syria and the Middle East in recent years per capita than almost any other nation, and Brussels is known to harbour a large number of radical Islamist sympathisers.
Not many details are known about the victims of the bombings, but the Mormon Church has said that three of its missionaries in its Paris office were seriously injured in the explosion at the airport.
The three men, aged 19, 20, and 66 and all from Utah, had been taken to hospital.
In a statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged Christians to pray for anyone caught up in the chaos.
“In the great Holy Week of Christian prayer and mercy, the Brussels attacks shock all those who seek peace and justice through the terrible cruelty and utter separation from all that is of God.
“Once again we see the contrast between the vain efforts to terrify through indiscriminate murder, and the call of God to be those who show mercy, who seek peace and pursue it.”
The Church of England has released prayers for peace on its website, and the Conference of European Churches has condemned the “violent attacks” and said it grieves the loss of life.
“In this season of Lent and Holy Week, we lament such outbursts of violence,” said the Conference’s General Secretary, Fr Heikki Huttunen. “As we heal together as inhabitants of Brussels and Europe — and brothers and sisters in humanity — we need to find our way anew, and must all contribute to building societies where everyone feels secure and partakes of the common good.”
Dr Thomas Wipf, from the European Council of Religious Leaders, said: "As senior religious leaders we have committed ourselves to further a culture of peace through dialogue, tolerance and flourishing of human dignity, and hence denounce the violence of the extremist.”
Archdeacon Williams reflects on a chaotic day in Brussels
It was my privilege this year to be chosen to preach at the chrism eucharist in the Pro-Cathedral in Brussels. Clergy and lay ministers were due to come to Brussels from all over Northern Europe to renew their commitment to ministry and to receive the Holy Oils blessed by Bishop Robert Innes, Bishop in Europe.
I caught the train in Frankfurt at 6.30 a.m. and as I travelled towards Brussels read the first news of the bombings on my Smartphone. I arrived at the Gare de Midi at 9.30 a.m. and decided not to take my usual journey by Metro.
As it happens at about that moment the Metro bomb went off. As I walked to the Pro-Cathedral Brussels seemed to be closing around me. Shops were closing and Metro stations were taped and closed.
As the time for the service drew near, it became apparent that not all the clergy who had planned to be with us. Those travelling from Helsinki had been diverted to Amsterdam. Another colleague's train had been turned back. Our colleague from Copenhagen had wisely aborted his journey.
But other clergy - from France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands - were with us and we decided we must proceed. As the Eucharist unfolded, sirens sounded and helicopters flew noisily overhead.
Standing together at Christ's Table seemed an act of defiance. As the Eucharist unfolded we came forward to light candles to proclaim Him whom no darkness can overcome.
And together we committed ourselves to service of Christ and His Church in good times and in bad.
The Ven. Colin Williams is the Archdeacon of the East and Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe in the diocese in Europe