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After Baghdad church attack, Christians shocked but say 'we still have a mission here'

At least 58 people were left dead after Iraqi commandos stormed a Baghdad church attacked by Islamist militants.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent, Sahar IssaMcClatchy Newspapers / November 1, 2010

The coffin of a victim is carried past Our Lady of Salvation Church the morning after its congregation was taken hostage in Baghdad on Nov. 1.

Hadi Mizban/AP

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Baghdad

Iraq’s Christian community was in shock Monday after a church siege by Islamist militants during Sunday mass and a rescue attempt by Iraqi commandos left at least 58 people dead.

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Officials said that in addition to the priests, worshipers, and security forces killed, 75 more people were injured after Iraqi special forces stormed Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church where gunmen wearing suicide vests were holding the congregation.

Church leaders blamed inadequate security by the Iraqi government for the deadliest attack in Baghdad since before March elections.

“If the sons of this country cannot live in peace then the situation is clearly unacceptable. Had we been provided with adequate security, this would not have happened,” Syriac church official Monsignor Pius Kasha told the Monitor.

As an elite commando unit under control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office stormed the church after a four-hour standoff, gunfire and explosions rocked central Baghdad on Sunday night. Witnesses and survivors say the attack started with a team of insurgents dressed in military uniforms killing guards at the nearby Baghdad stock exchange before they scaled the walls and started shooting inside the church.

The dead included two young Iraqi priests and a church deacon, as well as families attending Sunday mass at the church in the central Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, say church officials.

Church protection

The Iraqi federal police and Army have been deployed outside churches during Sunday mass since a series of coordinated attacks on churches more than two years ago. On Sunday though, witnesses said there were no military or police vehicles deployed outside the church during the service.

Nearby residents described terrifying scenes unfolding into the night. Rajaa, a school teacher who did not want her last name used, says from the first floor window she could see four men in military uniforms get out of a black SUV and shoot at the stock exchange guards before jumping the wall into the church.

Three other gunmen in an ordinary car pulled up, she says.

“As soon as they jumped over the wall they detonated their car. Then all we could hear were shots and screams from inside the church,” she says. Authorities said two stock exchange guards and four passersby were killed in the initial attack.

Islamic State of Iraq claims responsibility

The gunmen were believed to have almost immediately shot one of the priests celebrating mass as well as several of the parishioners. An Iraqi television station said it had received a call from the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, claiming responsibility for the attack and saying they were demanding the release of prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.

Most of the casualties though were believed to have resulted when the gunmen detonated two suicide vests after Iraqi commandos blew off the doors and stormed the building.

"The men who carried out the attack were very organized – the way they entered … how well prepared and armed with machine guns, explosive belts, and everything they could need…. How they quickly closed the doors and shut in the faithful. Then the security forces came and … It was a real tragedy – so many lives lost ..." says Monsignor Kasha.

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