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Hundreds of Iraq Assyrians Mark Church Siege Carnage
By Prashant Rao

BAGHDAD (AFP) -- Hundreds of Iraqi Christians attended mass on Friday at a Baghdad church where 46 worshippers died in an Al-Qaeda siege, marking 40 days since the killings that sparked an international outcry.

Security was tight as a procession of Christian leaders entered the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Syriac Catholic church, which still bears bullet marks from the attack.

Outside the church, a handful of demonstrators held up placards that read "Stop Killing Christians" and called for the results of an investigation into the October 31 attack to be published.

Several people wept as a crowd of about 500 paid their respects, including the families of the victims, survivors, as well as Iraqi politicians, diplomats, and priests from across Baghdad.

The head of the Syriac Catholic Church, Ignatius Joseph III Yunan, told the congregation of his "sadness" over the "disaster" in which dozens died while praying for unity to return to Iraq.

"We came here in order to pray to God for Iraq to be better. God will never give up on you. God will make the sons of this country united," said the patriarch, who came from Lebanon for the ceremony.

The attack, in which 44 worshippers and two priests were killed in addition to seven Iraqi security force members and the five attackers, was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

"We cannot deny the reality that the hands of those who committed this crime were controlled by minds full of hatred," the patriarch said.

"Their (victims') blood will purify the biggest mistake in the world -- people who kill because of differences of religion.

"We still remember what (Iraqi) Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said, that Christians have the right to stay, and to join in the wealth of their country."Hannady Haitham, who worked as a translator for Wassim Sabih, one of the two priests killed in the siege, said the community was still struggling to cope with the loss.

"It's very sad for me, for all of us, but as a friend of the priests, I see them in the faces of the people," Haitham said at the church on Friday.

"I miss (Father Wassim), but I still feel him here. He was very caring for the young, the elderly, the sick."One priest announced the robes of the slain clergymen, which were hung on display at the head of the church aisle, would "be given to God."The wave of attacks against Christians in Iraq has prompted many of them to flee the country, while those still here fear for their lives.

"It is very difficult, Christians in Iraq are living in a genuine crisis," Father Amir Jaje, the superior of the Dominican order in Baghdad, told AFP.

Asked if he believed authorities could improve the situation and provide security for the community, he replied: "What happened here prevents us from having any faith in the authorities.

"Every day, the attacks continue."The siege began, according to witnesses, when heavily-armed militants burst into the church during Sunday mass and took about 80 worshippers hostage. It ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces.

Despite government promises to rebuild the church, the damage from the attack is still evident.

At the entrance, one of the doors is still torn off its hinges, while a large chunk of another has been broken off. The glass covering several framed portraits lining the church abbey is broken.

Large posters of the dead priests -- 23-year-old Father Wassim and 32-year-old Taher Saadallah Boutros -- adorned the entry gate to the church, and pictures of all 46 victims were put up throughout the building.

Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the 2003 US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to about 500,000 as the community's members have fled abroad in the face violence.

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