BAGHDAD (AFP) -- Two priests, who were among dozens of Christian hostages killed by Al-Qaeda gunmen in a Baghdad church, were buried as heroes on Tuesday after a tearful funeral that drew hundreds of people.
About 700 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 a solemn mass during which mourners sobbed openly, only the coffins of priests Taher Saadallah Boutros, 32, and Wassim Sabih, 23, who were shot dead by the gunmen, rested on a table.
Before the service began, 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 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.
"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," he said, reassuring a community that has dwindled since the 2003 US-led invasion as many have left.
Mourners and witnesses said both priests had showed heroism during Sunday's hostage drama at a Baghdad cathedral, pleading with the hostage takers to kill them but not harm the parishioners.
"These are the true heroes of Iraq, not the politicians or soldiers, but these two men who followed the teaching of Christ and sacrificed themselves while trying to persuade the killers to spare the lives of the worshippers," said Firas Chill, 30, who attended the funeral.
The uncle of Father Boutros, relating what one of the survivors told him, said "Taher was praying and reading a passage from the Bible when the armed men arrived.
"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."
Witnesses said Sabih had tried to hide some of the worshippers in another room after the gunmen burst into the church.
The two priests, said to have been inseparable friends in life, were buried next to each other at a cemetery next to the cathedral.
The service at Saint Joseph church was for all the victims of the bloodbath but not all of the dead were being buried at the same location.
Witnesses said heavily armed men burst into the church during Sunday mass and took about 80 worshippers hostage. The drama ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces, with US troops acting in 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.
The attack, claimed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate, was one of the deadliest against Iraqi Christians and provoked a wave of international condemnation.
Meanwhile, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Tuesday condemned the killing.
"His eminence condemns the criminal action against our Christian brothers," an adviser to Sistani told AFP in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
And Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, Islam's oldest seat of learning, in Cairo, called the massacre a "heinous act," his spokesman said.
Tayeb affirmed that "Islam and Muslims have nothing to do with such acts, which harm Islam and violate Islamic precepts," state news agency Mena quoted spokesman Mohammed al-Tahtawi as saying.
The Iraqi 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.
By Sammy Ketz