Iraqi Christians mourn dead from church bloodbath

aleqm5gki3alxf0tjy5-uwqtoyi5uqosfq.jpgBy Sammy Ketz (AFP)
BAGHDAD — Fear could not stop hundreds of grieving Christians from packing a Baghdad church on Tuesday to mourn two priests and dozens of others killed during a hostage drama by Al-Qaeda gunmen that ended in a bloodbath.

About 700 tearful worshippers and representatives from the government and every religious and ethnic community in Iraq packed the Saint Joseph Chaldean church in the heart of the Karrada district, where coffins carrying the dead lay on the ground.

In the solemn ceremony where mourners sobbed openly during mass for the dead, only the coffins of the priests — Taher Saadallah Boutros, 32, and Wassim Sabih, 23, who were shot dead by the gunmen, rested on a table.

Before the service began, only seven coffins were inside the church, surrounded by wreaths of flowers sent by churches from around Baghdad.

But prayers were interrupted several times as more coffins were brought in. Each entry evoked subdued applause, and mourners tossed candies onto the coffins.

Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, head of Iraq’s largest Christian denomination, said in his sermon that the victims had been struck by “the devil’s hand.

“They came to church to pray to God and fulfill their religious duty, but the devil’s hand entered the holy place to kill,” he said.

Many Christians have said the killings will speed up the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq, but the Delly said Christians were not afraid of death or threats.

“We are not afraid of death and threats. We are the sons of this country and we will stay with our Muslim brothers in Iraq, hand-in-hand to glorify the name of Iraq,” the patriarch said, reassuring a community whose people have left in large numbers since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Earlier in the day, tearful women in black were among dozens of people who gathered outside the morgue of the Saint Raphael hospital to accompany the bodies of the two priests. The men had heroically tried to save worshippers during Sunday’s hostage drama at a Baghdad cathedral that ended in an assault by Iraqi forces backed by US troops.

“All the families of the victims are invited to this ceremony, but I don’t know yet how many will come,” Monsignor Pius Kasha, the vicar of Iraq’s Syriac Catholic church, had worried earlier, alluding to the ripples of fear the attack has sent through Iraq’s dwindling Christian community.

He said that Boutros, who was also known as Father Athir, would be laid to rest near Father Sabih at a cemetery next to the cathedral, because they had been “inseparable” in life.

The memorial service at Saint Joseph church was for all the victims of the bloodbath but not all of the dead were being buried Tuesday at the same location.

Witnesses said that heavily armed militants burst into the church during Sunday mass and took about 80 worshippers hostage.

The hostage drama ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces, while the US military provided an advisory role.

Forty-six Christians were killed and 60 wounded, Iraqi officials have said, adding that seven members of the security forces also died.

Survivors said the gunmen who stormed Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Catholic cathedral wore military uniforms and were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, grenades and suicide vests

“Taher was praying and reading a passage from the Bible when the armed men arrived,” the uncle of Father Boutros said, relating what one of the survivors told him.

“He told them ‘kill me but let the worshippers go in peace’,” he said.

A 24-year-old survivor, who gave his name only as Steven, said the gunmen told Father Boutros: “‘Convert to Islam because in any case you will die,’ and then they shot him in the head.”

The attack, claimed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate, was one of the deadliest against Iraqi Christians and provoked a wave of international condemnation.

And Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Tuesday condemned the killed.

“His eminence condemns the criminal action against our Christian brothers,” an adviser to Sistani told AFP in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

The Iraqi government said security personnel who let the tragedy happen would be made to pay, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reportedly ordered the police commander of Karrada district to be arrested for failing in his duties.

The government said it would treat the wounded, compensate families of the dead and repair the church, starting immediately.

“I want the government to help the families of the victims, and that should not become an unkept promise,” Emmanuel III said in his sermon.

The number of Christians in Iraq numbered about 800,000 before the invasion, but have fallen to 500,000 since then.