Iraqi Christians defy threats
Baghdad - Hundreds of Christians packed Our Lady of Salvation for Christmas church mass on Saturday, defying threats of attacks less than two months after militants massacred worshippers and priests there.
Security was extremely tight, with forces armed with pistols and assault rifles guarding the area, and a 3m concrete wall topped with gleaming razor wire surrounding the church.
All cars coming into the area were searched, and worshippers were patted down twice before being allowed to enter the church.
The mood was sombre as worshippers reflected on an October 31 attack claimed by al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq in which gunmen stormed the church, leaving two priests, 44 worshippers and seven security personnel dead.
The church, which was filled by more than 300 worshippers, still bears visible signs of the attack, with the walls pockmarked from bullets and the destroyed wooden pews replaced with plastic and metal chairs.
The attack has left many reeling.
"Last year, we were all gathering" for Christmas, said Uday Saadallah Abdal. But "this year, I went to the house, and I saw it was empty... I was crying all night, because no one was here any more," he said.
Souls still here
The 28-year-old said two of his brothers were killed in the attack - one of the priests, Father Thair, and another brother Raed. His mother was also shot three times, and is hospitalised in France.
"I feel that their souls are still there in the church; that is why I came. They encourage me to come here despite all the danger and threats," Abdal said of his brothers.
"We are afraid, but despite that, we are coming" for mass, Rana Nikhail said before the service. "We have to be here, because it is the birthday of the Messiah."
But "we cannot feel happy because tears are in our eyes, and people we love are not with us any more," the 35-year-old said.
Ten days after the deadly siege, a string of attacks targeted the homes of Christians in Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 others.
Iraqi Christians have also received threats.
Chaldean Catholic archbishop Monsignor Louis Sarko in Kirkuk said on Tuesday that he "and 10 other Christian personages received threats from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq".
Keep hope alive
Syrian Catholic Archbishop Matti Motaka called for people to maintain hope despite all the hardship.
"Our message is for people not to give up and to have hope in this life," Motaka said after the mass.
"We have hope, because Jesus is with us all the time, during all the difficulties that we face," but because of the attack, "there is a great wound in the heart of the church."
Some worshippers asserted that despite the attacks and threats, they were not afraid.
"We have no fear at all. We are insisting on coming to the church for prayer and mass," said 40-year-old worshipper Tomas Rafo.
"We are here to support each other, to support the families of the victims, and to challenge terrorism," he said, adding: "Sadness is still in our hearts because of the attack, because of losing people that we love."
But Fikrat Pack, 52, said: "There is sadness, but not fear. If we were afraid, the church would be empty. People are sad but not afraid, that is why they are here."
Crime against unity
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday expressed solidarity with Christians, and called on them to remain in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have fled abroad amid unrest since the 2003 US-led invasion.
"The attempts at eliminating the Christians from their country and land is a huge crime against national unity," he said.
"We strongly call on (Christians) to stay in their country, to commit to their country and participate in building and reconstructing it."
Baghdad security spokesperson Major General Qassim Atta said no incidents have taken place so far on Saturday.
"Our leadership took a series of security measures to protect the churches, through deploying forces around all churches.
"We are on alert for the mass (but) we have no fear that the attacks of mother of salvation may repeat," said Atta.