Iraq Church attack.
(photo credit: AP)
BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces stormed a Baghdad church where militants had taken an entire congregation hostage for four hours, leaving at least 52 people dead, including a priest, Iraqi officials said Monday.
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It was not immediately clear whether the hostages died at the hands of the attackers or during the rescue late on Sunday night in an affluent neighborhood of the capital.
The incident began when militants wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades attacked the Iraqi stock exchange at dusk Sunday before turning their attention to the nearby Our Lady of Deliverance church — one of Baghdad's main Catholic places of worship — taking about 120 Christians hostage.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, the deputy interior minister, said 52 people were killed and 67 wounded, in the bloodbath. Officials said at least one priest and 10 policemen were among the dead. Many of the wounded were women.
The casualty information came from police and officials at hospitals
where the dead and wounded were taken. They spoke on condition of
anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
A cryptically worded statement posted late Sunday on a militant website
allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq appeared to claim responsibility
for the attack. The group, which is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, said it
would "exterminate Iraqi Christians" if Muslim women in Iraq were not
It also specifically mentioned two women in Egypt that extremists
maintain have converted to Islam and are being held against their will
The Egyptian women are wives of priests that are believed to have
converted to Islam to leave their husbands, since divorce is banned by
the Coptic Church. One woman disappeared in 2004 and another in July of
Egypt's Christians maintained they had been kidnapped and demonstrated
for their release. Both were later recovered by police, denied any
conversions and were then spirited away to distant monasteries.
In the message, the militants claim the two are still Muslim and they
called upon the Vatican, which held a meeting earlier in October to
discuss the fate of Christians in the Middle East, to release the women.
"We direct our speech to the Vatican and say that as you met with
Christians of the Mideast a few days ago to support them and back them,
now you have to pressure them to release our sisters, otherwise death
will reach you all," the message said.
Iraqi Christians, who have been frequent targets for Sunni insurgents,
have left in droves since the 2003 US-led war. Catholics used to
represent 2.89 percent of the population in 1980; by 2008 they were just
One Iraqi man who identified himself only as Abu Sami for security
reasons, said his wife was inside the church during the attack. Although
she was unharmed, he said he feared that the church siege signaled a
new round of violence by militants against Iraq's Christian community.
"I expect the coming attacks will be worse in the future since the
government is doing nothing to protect us. We are peaceful people and
never harmed any of our fellow countrymen, so we do not understand the
reasons behind such evil attacks," he said.
"Many Christians now believe that they do not have any hope in Iraq and
the best thing to survive is to seek another country to live in," he