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Baghdad Church Siege Survivors Speak of Taunts, Killings and Explosions
By Martin Chulov
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At sunset yesterday, Raghada al-Wafi walked excitedly to mass with news for the priest who married her a month ago. Tonight, exactly 24 hours later, she returned to the Our Lady of Salvation church -- this time carried by her family in a coffin that also contained her unborn child. Today the priest who blessed her marriage and pregnancy minutes before he was killed will also be buried, as will several dozen other members of his congregation -- all of them slain by terrorists in an attack that has drawn condemnation from around the world and left the fate of Iraq's beleaguered Christian community evermore uncertain . Fifty-eight people, most of them worshippers from the Chaldean Catholic community, are confirmed to have been killed in the massacre, which was carried out by al-Qaida-aligned gunmen, some of whom claimed to be avenging a foiled move by a small-town US pastor to burn the Qur'an. Survivors spoke of religious taunts, random killings and then a gunman slaughtering hostages en masse as the Iraqi army stormed the church to end the four-hour siege. Ghassan Salah, 17, had just arrived for the Sunday night service with his mother, Nadine, and brother, Ghaswan, when the gunmen burst through the cathedral's huge wooden doors. "All of you are infidels," they screamed at the congregation. "We are here to avenge the burning of the Qur'ans and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt." Then the killing began. Ghassan and seven other survivors described to the Guardian a series of events that have broken new ground in a country that has become partly conditioned to violence throughout eight years of war. Thar Abdallah, the priest who married al-Wafi was first to be killed -- shot dead where he stood. Gunmen then sprayed the church with bullets as another priest ushered up to 60 people to a small room in the back. Mona Abdullah Hadad, 62, was in church with her family when the gunmen started shooting. "They said, 'We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell'," she said. "We stood beside the wall and they started shooting at the young people. I asked them to kill me and let my grandson live, but they shot him dead and they shot me in the back." Hadad was recovering in a Baghdad hospital along with 67 other people, many of them seriously wounded. Part of her kidney was removed yesterday and she remains heavily traumatised. Survivors claimed that the terrorists holding them accounted for most, if not all, of the casualties. There were growing fears in Baghdad that the military raid may also have led to the deaths of hostages. "I saw at least 30 bodies," said Madeline Hannah, 33, who was seriously wounded by gunshots. Many appeared to have been blown apart by explosions detonated by the hostage-takers, she added. "They said it was 'halal' to kill us," said Hannah, whose 10-year-old son was shot in the back. "They hated us and said we were all going to die." Witnesses interviewed consistently said that some of the gunmen spoke Arabic in a non-Iraqi dialect, supporting a government claim that the operation was foreign-backed. It was carried out in the name of an umbrella group for global jihad causes, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which has previously targeted Christians and churches, but on a much smaller scale. An audio message posted on a jihadist website specifically called for the release of two Egyptian Christian women who are married to Coptic priests and are believed by some Muslim groups to have converted to Islam and to be held against their will. The scene of their massacre, one of Baghdad's most well-known landmarks, was today a rank mess of blood stains, flesh and shell casings. Pews were scattered throughout the cavernous church, which was pocked with hundreds of bullet holes and damage that testified to the horrendous events that had taken place there. The Iraqi army assault was heralded with a sustained, fearsome burst of gunfire that lasted at least two minutes. It was interrupted by two large explosions that are believed to have been caused by gunmen detonating suicide vests they were wearing. "I saw them put the explosive belts on their body," said Ghaswan Salah, 16. "It was the last thing they did before the army came in." The Vatican today led global condemnation of the latest violence against Iraq's Christian community of 550,000, which has almost halved since the 2003 invasion. The leader of Iraq's Christian Endowment Fund, Abdullah Nowfali, said: "They want us to leave the country. Now very few of us will dare to attend prayers." A return to church was far from the mind of most survivors contacted by the Guardian, such as Ban Abdullah Georges, whose daughter, Marina Bresh, was shot in the thigh. "All through the terrible past I had said to my husband we should stay, and we will stay," she said. "This is my home. But it's not anymore. There is nothing for us now. Nothing." Historic community Iraq is home to one of the Middle East's oldest Christian communities; the majority are Catholics belonging to the Chaldean, or Assyrian, churches.The Assyrians are thought to be the oldest Christian community, dating back to the first century. Armenian Christians moved to Iraq too, fleeing massacres in Turkey early last century. There have been other violent campaigns against Iraq's Christians, such as a sustained attack by the Iraqi army in the 1930s, but the last 50 years had been largely benign for the various communities, which were thought to have numbered around 800,000 before the US invasion of 2003. During the 35 years of Ba'athist rule, Iraq's Christians were treated relatively well, especially compared with Shias and Kurds. Saddam Hussein made a Chaldean Christian, Tariq Aziz, into a powerful and trusted deputy and by and large left the Christian hamlets of Baghdad, Irbil and Mosul alone. Things changed during the security vacuum that followed the fall of Baghdad. Christians in Mosul have been targeted by Sunni insurgents who align with the jihadi world view. Mass migrations have followed the attacks, with the number of Christians in Iraq now thought to be as low as 500,000. Those who remain see themselves as an increasingly threatened minority.

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