BAGHDAD (AFP) -- Dozens of Iraqi Christians overcame their fears and attended Baghdad's Sayidat al-Nejat church on Thursday to begin prayers marking 40 days since Al-Qaeda militants carried out a deadly siege.
The Our Lady of Salvation church, whose walls bear bullet marks of where the hostage-takers fired off their weapons, was also to hold a mass on Friday morning, expected to draw up to 300 people, in memory of the 44 worshippers and two priests who died in the violence.
The October 31 attack, which also cost the lives of seven Iraqi security force members and the five attackers, was the most high-profile among a spate of killings of Iraq's minority Christian population that have prompted many of them to flee the country, while those left behind fear for their lives.
"Today, we began the prayers, and tomorrow we will have the mass to mark 40 days," Father Amir Jaje, the superior of the Dominican Order in Baghdad, told AFP, on the eve of the mass to mark exactly 40 days.
"Many of the participants in the ceremony today were present during the attacks, or were related to victims of the attack -- they all needed some moral support."
He added: "Despite the terror and the violence that happened here, they came here once again and expressed their love for those who died."
Christian communities in the Middle East typically commemorate the dead 40 days after their passing in a tradition unique to the region.
Scars from the attack remain throughout the Syriac Catholic church, with one of its entry doors still unfixed, torn off its hinges, while a large chunk of another has been broken off, and the glass covering several framed portraits lining the church abbey is broken.
Helicopters flew overhead during the ceremony, during which prayers were read aloud interspersed with hymns. All male entrants were frisked on entry as heavily-armed federal police were perched atop the church's first storey.
The attack began, according to witnesses, as heavily-armed militants burst into the church during Sunday afternoon mass and took about 80 worshippers hostage. The siege ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces.
Afterwards, the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility in a statement that said Christians everywhere were henceforth "legitimate targets."
"I feel some relief now, yes, I am feeling a little better," said Walid Boutros.
He had been trapped in the church along with a daughter and son-in-law when the attackers struck, although all three managed to emerge unhurt. "We prayed for the souls of those who died, to mark the 40 days," he said.
Boutros, a restaurant worker with five children, said he did not want to stay in Iraq any longer and had applied to migrate to France.
"I don't feel safe here," he said. "I am willing to abandon my property and leave, I just want to feel safe. It's getting worse here, every day," said Boutros.
"Maybe it will take 10 years for Christians to be welcome here again," he said, before adding: "No, actually, that is not enough time."
Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion to oust president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to around 500,000 as members of the community have fled abroad in the face of stepped-up violence.
"It has been getting worse and worse and worse," a priest who identified himself only as Father Simon said before Thursday's ceremony. "At first, they (insurgents) evicted Christians from their homes, then they began killing them."
"Now, they are killing Christians, not one at a time, but now they are trying to kill Christians in groups ... Our leaders, they say we can live here, that this is our country too, but they do nothing."