Iraqi Christians hold Mass week after a deadly assault

Monday, November 8, 2010
Followers attend a Mass on Sunday at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad. An attack at the church a week earlier left dozens of people dead or injured. (Khalid Mohammed ~ Associated Press)

BAGHDAD -- The walls were still splattered with blood and pieces of flesh as Iraqi Christians celebrated Mass on Sunday in the church that just a week before had been the scene of a horrific bloodbath in which dozens died.

Parishioners holding candles and wearing black gathered in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church, which had been stripped bare of pews and still bore bullet holes along its walls, while overhead the chandeliers and ceilings were stained with blood.

Islamic militants took about 120 parishioners hostage last Sunday in the worst attack against the country's Christian minority since the 2003-U.S. led invasion unleashed a torrent of violence across the country. By the end of the evening, 58 people were dead.

Father Mukhlis, who led the shellshocked congregation in prayer Sunday, began the Mass by saying they will pray for the victims of the assault and for the attackers alike.

"We will perform a strange kind of prayer, because Christ tell us: 'Love your enemies,"' Mukhlis said. "We will pray for those who assaulted our church and shed the blood of our martyrs."

At the Mass, the congregants read verses from the Bible and laid out candles in the shape of a cross on the church floor, along with the names of those who died. At the front of the church were photos of the two priests killed in the attack.

Mukhlis called the two priests martyrs. At least one of the them was shot execution-style on the church floor.

"Father Thair was standing right here and told the attackers: Kill me, not the families and children,"' Mukhlis said pointing at the altar.

Evet Gabriel, a worshippers attending the Sunday's Mass was struggling with forgiveness as she try to comprehend the assailants' motivations for storming the church, holding worshippers hostage, killing one of her relatives and injuring his wife.

"They were merciless, and what did they gain from this act?" Gabriel asked. She said the attackers shot her relative in the head while he was lay over his daughter to protect her.

Even for a nation used to daily violence after years of war, the church killings at the hands of militants shocked Iraqis. Grieving and afraid, some Iraqi Christians were saying they may now join what Catholic officials estimate is more than 1 million fellow worshippers who have fled the country since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Iraq's top Catholic prelate, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly has encouraged the country's remaining 1.5 million Christians to stay in the country. He called on the authorities for more protection and police and over the past week there has been a boosted military presence around the Baghdad's churches.

However, Mukhlis told the congregation that the fate of Iraq's Christian community is not in the hands of the country's leadership or its security forces.

"No politician, no state and no body else can protect us," Mukhlis said. "Only God can protect us."

In London, a senior Iraqi Christian said members of Iraq's religious minority should leave the country to escape violence directed at their community.

Archbishop Athanasios Dawood said it appeared certain that insurgents were deliberately targeting church services.

"If they stay they will be finished -- one by one," he told BBC television after delivering a service at London's Syrian Orthodox Church urging Christians to flee his native Iraq.

He said Christian may be safe "if there is a change of regime in Iraq and there is a new government ... but if there is no protection, then our people should emigrate from Iraq."

Associated Press Writer David Stringer contributed to this report in London.

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