Iraq’s Christians mourn, bury their dead

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of grieving Christians and other Iraqis packed a funeral service Tuesday for members of the faith killed in a militant siege on a Baghdad church. The attack, which an al-Qaida-linked group claimed it carried out, left 58 people dead and dozens wounded.

The complex attack carried out Sunday evening on parishioners celebrating Mass at the Our Lady of Salvation church in an affluent Baghdad neighborhood emphasized the ease with which militants can still strike in Iraq and the particularly dangerous position that the country’s Christians occupy among Iraq’s sectarian structure.
Iraq’s top Catholic prelate, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, urged the government to protect the nation’s Christian community and not let their promises just be ink on paper.

“We are gathered here in this sacred house to say farewell to our brothers who were just the day before yesterday exclaiming love and peace,” Delly told a weeping congregation at the Chaldean St. Joseph Church in central Baghdad. “Now fate has decided that they will leave us.”

Women in the crowd wore black and sobbed quietly as seven coffins draped in Iraqi flags and covered with flowers were carried up to the altar, where notables in the Christian community were gathered. Two of the dead were priests – at least one of whom was executed on the floor of the church by the militants almost as soon as the siege began.

One of the officials read a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the crowd.

“For years the violence hasn’t stopped hitting this country, and Christians are becoming the target of these cruel terrorist attacks,” the letter read.

During the memorial service Tuesday, a slight smell of burning incense wafted through the warm church. Some in the crowd held photos of the priests and others who died, as mourners slumped over the coffins placed on the altar.

Outside, parishioners were searched as they walked inside the building and cars were kept from getting close, a reflection of the security concerns that hang over Iraq on a daily basis.

Inside the building paying their respects were Iraq’s human rights minister, Wijdan Mikheil, who is a Christian; Ammar al-Hakim, a leader of one of Iraq’s Shiite religious parties, who at times had tears running down his face, and priests and nuns from across Baghdad.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning Tuesday in connection with the deadly attack. It was not immediately clear whether the police commander was believed to be involved in the attack or simply negligent.

An Iraqi military spokesman said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the detention of the police commander, whom he did not identify by name. The commander was in charge of securing the Karradah neighborhood in Baghdad where Our Lady of Salvation is located.

The siege was the worst in years on Iraq’s already dwindling Christian community.

Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi said the assault was “very painful” for the stunned nation because “it harbors a sinister plan to empty the region of one of its main components: the Christians.”

“Such bombings in Iraq refer to an important security breach which should be quickly handled,” Adel Abdul-Mahdi, in Damascus, Syria, told The Associated Press.

Abdul-Mahdi is a top leader of a fundamentalist Shiite political coalition in Iraq that is reluctant to support al-Maliki for a second term in office.

France offered late Monday to grant asylum to 150 Iraqi Christians, including some of those wounded in the siege.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said the decision is in accordance with France’s tradition as a safe haven for persecuted minorities. France has been taking in Iraqi Christians since 2007.

Some 1,300 Iraqi Christians have received asylum under the program, which is run jointly with the United Nations refugee agency.

The bloodbath Sunday stunned a nation that has become used to daily attacks during seven years of war.

Violence continued Tuesday in northeast Iraq, where a roadside bomb killed four policemen and wounded three others. Diyala province police spokesman Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi said the explosion targeted a security patrol in Sadiyah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

Lara Jakes and Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad, Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria,