Iraq Christians mark deadly church siege

2010-12-10 13:59

Baghdad - Hundreds of Iraqi Christians attended mass on Friday at a Baghdad church where 46 worshippers died in an al-Qaeda siege, marking 40 days since the killings that sparked an international outcry.

Security was tight as a procession of Christian leaders entered the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) church, which still bears bullet marks along walls and ceilings of where the hostage-takers fired off their weapons.

Several people wept as a crowd of about 500 gathered to pay their respects, including the families of the victims, survivors, as well as Iraqi politicians, diplomats, and priests from across Baghdad.

Outside the church, a handful of demonstrators held up placards that read "Stop Killing Christians" and called for the results of an investigation into the attack to be published.

The October 31 attack, in which seven Iraqi security force members and the five attackers also died, was the most high-profile among a spate of killings of the country's Christian minority.

Hannady Haitham, who worked as a translator for Wassim Sabih, one of the two priests killed in the siege, said the community was still struggling to cope with the loss.

Christians fleeing

"It's very sad for me, for all of us, but as a friend of the priests, I see them in the faces of the people," Haitham said at the church on Friday.

"I miss (Father Wassim), but I still feel him here. He was very caring for the young, the elderly, the sick."

One priest announced that the gowns of the slain clergymen, which were hung on display at the head of the church aisle, would "be given to God".

The wave of attacks against Christians in Iraq has prompted many of them to flee the country, while those still here fear for their lives.

"It is very difficult, Christians in Iraq are living in a genuine crisis," Father Amir Jaje, the superior of the Dominican Order in Baghdad, said ahead of the ceremony.

Asked if he believed authorities could improve the situation and provide security for the community, he replied: "What happened here prevents us from having any faith in the authorities.

"Every day, the attacks continue."

The siege began, according to witnesses, as heavily-armed militants burst into the Syriac Catholic church during Sunday mass and took about 80 worshippers hostage.

It ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces.

Damage still evident

The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate, later claimed responsibility, but their statement also warned Christians everywhere were henceforth "legitimate targets".

Despite government promises to rebuild the church, the damage from the attack is still evident.

At the entrance, one of the doors is still torn off its hinges, while a large chunk of another has been broken off. The glass covering several framed portraits lining the church abbey is broken.

Large posters of the dead priests - 23-year-old Father Wassim and 32-year-old Taher Saadallah Boutros - adorned the entry gate to the church's main courtyard, and pictures of all 46 victims have been put up throughout the building.

Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Between 800 000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to around 500 000 as members of the community have fled abroad in the face of stepped-up violence.

Read more on:    iraq  |  religion

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