Baghdad: parish returns to assaulted church for Mass

Mother and child after attack - photo: ICIN

Mother and child after attack - photo: ICIN

Just a week after the horrific massacre which left 58 people dead and dozens injured, shellshocked parishioners, wearing black and carrying candles, gathered for Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean Catholic Church, in Baghdad.

The walls are covered in bullet holes and still stained with blood; benches have been moved out of the church where 120 people were held hostage by Islamic militants.

Father Mukhlis began the Mass by saying they would pray for the victims of the assault and for the attackers alike. He said: "We will perform a strange kind of prayer, because Christ tells us: 'Love your enemies'. We will pray for those who assaulted our church and shed the blood of our martyrs."

During the Mass, parishioners placed candles on the church floor in the shape of a cross, with the names of those who died. At the front of the church were photos of the two priests, Fr Taher and  Fr Wassim, killed in the attack. Fr Mukhlis said the priests  were martyrs. He said Fr Thair Abdal was standing at the altar  and told the attackers: "Kill me, not the families and children."

Christians have suffered increasing violence and killings since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Officials estimate that up to one million people have fled the country since 2003.

Tensions were heightened in September when the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, threatened to burn a copy of the Koran.  Weeks before he was killed, Fr Thair Abdal was filmed in front of his church voicing fears that the episode had placed his community in even greater danger. The church had been surrounded with concrete crash barriers. But they were not enough to protect it. Last weeks' attack, and a statement from Al-Qaeda saying that all Christians now are 'legitimate targets' has left the remaining 1.5 million strong community in a state of shock.

Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly has encouraged 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 Baghdad's churches.

But Fr Mukhlis told his congregation that their fate was not in the hands of the country's leadership or its security forces. "No politician, no state and nobody else can protect us. Only God can protect us," he told them.

In London, Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, leader of the Syrian Orthodox Church, advised Christians to leave Iraq. "Al-Qaeda has warned that all Christians are now legitimate targets", he said. "If they stay they will be finished - one by one," he told BBC television after leading a service at London's Syrian Orthodox Church. He said Christians 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."

Archbishop Athanasios urged western countries to grant asylum to Iraqi Christians.

The French government took 50 people injured in last week's attack for hospital treatment.

Iraqi Christian refugees in Detroit, USA, and Toronto, Canada held demonstrations over the weekend to protest over the attacks.


Tags: Al Qaeda, Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, Baghdad, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, Fr Mukhlis, Fr Taher, Fr Thair Abdal, Fr Wassim, Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean Catholic Church, Saddam Hussein, Terry Jones

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