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In Grief and Defiance, Baghdad's Christians Return to Scene of Attack
By John Leland

BAGHDAD -- To get to Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Church on Sunday, worshipers had to pass through a blockade of police trucks, past armed sentries on the rooftop, and through a security checkpoint where they were frisked for weapons and explosives. Some came in mourning black, many in tears, most in a spirit of quiet defiance.

"This gives us more strength," said Sama Wadie, 32, a teacher, his hand wrapped in a bandage. "We're not afraid of death because Jesus died for us. Of course we cry, but they're tears of happiness, because we die for God."

One week ago Our Lady of Salvation, a Syrian Catholic church, was the scene of the worst attack on Iraqi Christians since the American-led invasion in 2003. Gunmen in explosive suicide vests jumped the church's security wall and took more than 100 worshipers hostage, identifying themselves as members of the Islamic State of Iraq, a Qaeda-linked terrorist group. It began a night of bloodshed in which 51 worshipers and two priests were killed. The terrorist group promised more attacks, declaring Christians everywhere "legitimate targets."

On Sunday the congregation filed into a sanctuary riddled with bullet holes, with bloodstains on the 30-foot-high ceiling from the blast of a suicide vest that left six ornate crystal chandeliers eerily undamaged. In place of the scarred pews was a giant cross on the floor outlined in candles and filled with 51 sheets of paper, each bearing the name of one of the dead. Photographs of the two priests were placed around the church.

For many in the crowd of more than 150, it was their first time back since the massacre. Husan Sabah, 20, said he had been afraid to come. "I'm terrified now, seeing blood on the walls," he said, adding that he had recurrent nightmares in the past week. During the attack, Mr. Sabah said, he hid inside a cabinet holding a small child, waiting for the attackers to discover him or explode a bomb that would kill him. His brother was shot in the chest, but survived.

On Sunday he returned, Mr. Sabah said, because he was unable to finish his prayers the previous week. "We have to finish them," he said.

Now, Mr. Sabah wants to leave Iraq. "In my neighborhood they all hate me," he said. "When you see people on the streets, they say, 'Why are you still here? You should leave.' Every day I hear of people leaving."

To the priests and the congregants on Sunday, many attending from other churches or mosques, the victims of the attack were martyrs, or shohada -- an Arabic word commonly used here to describe both suicide bombers and their victims, as if to impose meaning on violence that feels empty of meaning.

In an emotional service interrupted twice by applause, the Rev. Muklis Shisha told the congregation, "The church is a martyr," adding: "The cross needs blood, and the blood is happiness because Jesus is our happiness. I congratulate our country and ourselves for our martyrs."

For many Christians here, the attack underscored a bitter irony of the American-led invasion. It opened the door for warfare on one of the world's oldest Christian communities.

According to the Society for Threatened Peoples, a nongovernmental organization in Germany, more than three-quarters of Baghdad's 400,000 Christians have left the capital since the invasion, and many have left the country. With a few exceptions, the country's Jewish population left years ago.

"I don't think the American people care about this," said the Rev. Meyassr al-Qaspotros of the nearby Sacred Church of Jesus, whose cousin was one of the priests killed at Our Lady of Salvation, adding, "The Americans are the cause of all this."

In his sermon to his own congregation, he said, he planned to stress the existential meaning of human suffering and the need for forgiveness, even in the face of horrific bloodshed. "God allowed man to torture Jesus, he will allow this as well, because he gave freedom to all people," Father Qaspotros said. "We are willing to live with them as our brothers, and teach our sons to love them, because we are no different from them. We are all human."

For Nagam Riyadh, 26, who had a bandage around her knee after being wounded in the assault, its horror only strengthened her faith. On Sunday she sat by an arrangement of candles, the same spot from where she had watched one of the church's priests die. "We forgive them," she said. "We're not afraid. They gave us blood and we give them forgiveness."

But for Helen Amir, 28, who said she was switching to Our Lady of Salvation from another church to show solidarity after the attack, it was too soon to talk about forgiveness. "I cannot forgive, ever," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "Maybe they will kill me because I love God and I love peace."

She added: "I want to live here and die here. But I have a baby girl. I just want my daughter to live her life like any baby, not to see blood like this."

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting.

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