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The incident, which began Sunday afternoon, highlights the continued threat to Christians in Iraq, whose number has shrunk from 800,000 to 550,000 since 2003 as members have fled abroad or been killed. Radical groups continue to launch attacks on religious and non-religious sites as political leaders struggle to form a new government some eight months after controversial elections.
"Major acts of violence have not proliferated during the political deadlock, as many have feared, but smaller, focused attacks have been commonplace, stirring fears of a return to high levels of bloodshed," reports The New York Times.
The standoff at the church lasted some four hours before Iraqi security forces swept in and the terrorists blew themselves up. Casualty numbers varied widely in reports Monday, with CNN and others reporting 37 killed and the Associated Press saying 52. Agence France-Presse reported that two priests were among those killed.
The attack occurred at the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad's Karrada District (see map from BBC), where more than 100 worshipers were held hostage, according to Alsumaria News, an Iraqi satellite TV network.
At least 45 people were killed and 70 others were wounded including security forces, a police source told Alsumaria News. Gunmen blew themselves up inside the church, the source said.
The standoff was ended on Monday at 3 am at dawn, he added.
Defense Minister Abdul Qader Al Ubaidi affirmed that security forces successfully managed to free worshippers. The attack bears Al Qaeda prints, he said.
A reporter for the Guardian who was on the scene and interviewed worshipers who were fleeing the church said that a car bomb first blew up outside the church, and then a group of six to eight men in military garb stormed in. Priests ushered many of the worshipers into a back room to protect them, but the attackers pursued, witnesses told the Guardian.
"After a while one of the terrorists opened the door and threw in a bomb," said a man who identified himself as Bassam. "There were injuries. They killed people, they injured people," he said, before collapsing on the road outside the church. "Where is our father?" he screamed," referring to his priest. "Where is our father?"
Islamic State of Iraq claims responsibility
Local radio reported that one of the gunman, a man with a non-Iraqi accent, called a local TV network during the siege, said he was part of the Islamic State of Iraq, and demanded the release of prisoners in both Egypt and Iraq. The gunmen blew themselves up as Iraqi snipers and commandos closed in, the Guardian reported.
The New York Times said the raid to free the hostages was led by Iraq's "Golden Force" anti-terror unit.
The SITE intelligence group reported that Al Qaeda "front group" The Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said it took the hostages to demand that the Coptic Christian Church of Egypt release several women it had allegedly imprisoned, according to SITE, and gave the church 48 hours to release the women. It was unclear what would happen after the deadline passed.
The Islamic State of Iraq posted a communique to jihadist Internet forums on Sunday night, and then posted a two-and-a-half minute audio recording to the Internet, SITE said.
"The Mujahideens raided a filthy nest of the nests of polytheism, which has been long taken by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarter for a war against the religion of Islam and they were able by the grace of God and His glory to capture those were gathered in and to take full control of all its entrances," the group said on a website, according to CNN.
According to Globalsecurity.org, the Islamic State of Iraq was formed in 2006 and its goal is the establishment of a Sunni Islamic state in Iraq. The security website described the group as "possibly just another Al Qaeda front; possibly a shadow government formed under the organization's auspices."
Iraq's Christian population dwindles
In commentary earlier this year accompanying his report (pdf) on Iraq's security situation, Anthony Cordesman from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said continued US aid and assistance will be critical to the success of Iraq's fragile new government.
"There are political forces in the US that want to end aid to Iraq, and to avoid providing the required assistance and commitments necessary to help it survive the coming years," Cordesman wrote. "No US civil-military effort in Iraq can be successful unless it has the sustained support of the American people, the Congress, the media, various think tanks, and other 'influencers' of domestic public opinion."
Two-third of Iraq's Christians have fled their homes – many abroad – according to Human Rights Watch. While they made up less than 5 percent of Iraq's population when the war began (about 1 million), they now constitute an estimated 10 percent of internally displaced Iraqis and 20 percent of Iraqi refugees in neighboring nations, according to a 2009 report from The Christian Science Monitor.
Their displacement not only threatens to end Christianity's 2,000-year history in Iraq, it also deprives the country of a huge swath of middle-class professionals at a critical time. Since no Christian was able to have a government job under Saddam Hussein, university graduates became lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Crucial to Iraq's recovery, they are now scattered, afraid to return.
"The scale of the problem is total, and it has created an existential crisis," says Michael Youash of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, who campaigns on behalf of Iraqi Christians. "It may be that in 20 years there could be no more Christians in Iraq."