Priests among 46 Christians killed in Iraq hostage drama

1st November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Grieving Catholics in Baghdad marked All Saints Day Monday in mourning for 46 Christians killed during a hostage drama with Al-Qaeda gunmen that ended in an assault by Iraqi forces backed by US troops.

Throughout the day mourners were seen carrying out of the church coffins containing bodies of the dead out and loading them onto vehicles for transfer to the morgue. Most of the victims were to be buried on Tuesday.

The rescue drama on Sunday night, two months after US forces formally concluded combat operations in Iraq, ended with two priests among at least 46 slain worshippers.

"It was carnage," said Monsignor Pius Kasha, whose Syriac Catholic church was targeted by the militants who witnesses said were armed with automatic rifles and suicide belts.

"There were less than 80 people inside the church, and only 10 to 12 escaped unhurt," Kasha said, adding that two priests were among the dead and that 25 worshippers were wounded, among them a priest shot in the kidney.

Iraq gave a different toll and an interior ministry official said 46 worshippers had been killed and 60 wounded and that more than 100 people had been inside the church.

Seven security members also died, the official said, adding that five attackers were killed.

"It was a quick and successful operation," said Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi.

A witness said that immediately on entering the Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Christian cathedral during evening mass Sunday, the gunmen shot dead a priest while worshippers huddled in fear.

"They entered the church with their weapons, wearing military uniforms. They came into the prayer hall, and immediately killed the priest," said one of the freed hostages, an 18-year-old man who declined to be named.

"We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions, and some people were hurt from falling windows, doors and debris."

Iraqi officials said that at least one of the gunmen had blown himself up with a suicide belt as police made a first attempt to enter the church.

Traces of Flesh, blood, bullet marks and shattered glass littered the cathedral, said an AFP journalist who went to the scene in Baghdad's central Karrada district Monday.

"It resembles a battlefield," he said.

American soldiers dressed in combat gear also took part in the assault, some witnesses said, an assertion denied by the US military and the Iraqis.

"The (Iraqi) anti-terror forces are the only forces who raided the church, there were no Americans at all," Samer al-Shuaili, spokesman for Iraq's anti-terror unit, told AFP.

The US military said it had "advisers" near the scene, but that none of its soldiers were involved in the assault.

"There were no US soldiers involved in the assault to free the hostages," said US military spokesman in Iraq Colonel Barry Johnson.

Baghdad's Chaldean bishop, Shlimoune Wardouni, said the gunmen were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt.

The SITE monitoring group said Monday that the Islamic State of Iraq, the local Al-Qaeda branch, had claimed the Baghdad attack, and had given Egypt's Coptic church a 48-hour deadline to release women it said were being held captive by the Christians.

SITE said the threat comes amid calls by jihadists and Al-Qaeda's media arm for Muslims to take action against the Coptic church over the alleged imprisonment of two women, both wives of Coptic priests.

Egypt refused to react to the demands.

"Egypt categorically rejects having its name or affairs pushed into such criminal acts," the foreign ministry said in a statement issued in Cairo. It also "strongly condemned" the attack on the Baghdad church.

Meanwhile in the city of Ankawa near the provincial capital of Arbil in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, about 300 hundred Christians staged a peaceful march to condemn the killings.

"The aim of this act was to drive Christians out of Iraq," said Bashar Metti, the archbishop of Arbil who led the demonstration in the city, which has a majority-Christian population.

Condemnations poured in from the Vatican, Italy, France, Russia, Jordan and Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement.

Pope Benedict XVI on Monday branded the attack as "absurd and ferocious violence" against Iraqi Christians.

"We firmly condemn the criminal actions of terrorists, who attack the freedom and lives of people of all faiths," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement called the attack a "terrorist crime" blaming Israel for it and saying it "clearly carries the malicious fingerprints of Zionism.)

Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq in before the 2003 US-led invasion, but their number has since shrunk to 550,000 as members of the community have fled abroad after a series of attacks targeting them and their churches, according to Christian leaders.

Violence has abated in Iraq since its peak in 2006-2007, but deadly bombings, gunfights and kidnappings are still routine.

© 2010 AFP

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