(Photo: AP Photo / Khalid Mohammed)
The death toll from Sunday’s church hostage crisis in Iraq shot up to 52 on Monday while the number of people wounded rose to 67.
Deputy Interior Minister Lt. General Hussein Kamal reported the latest figures, which nearly doubled initial figures, on Monday, saying that the toll only included hostages and police officers, not the militants behind siege of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad.
Initial reports put the number of gunmen at around a dozen – at least five of which were killed along with the others when some of the explosives they were carrying went off.
The explosion occurred as security officers stormed the church around 9 p.m. to bring to an end the roughly four-hour standoff.
The ten or so militants had stormed the church around 5 p.m. wearing suicide vests after attacking the Baghdad Stock Market in the central part of the Iraqi capital earlier in the day.
In total about 120 churchgoers were taken hostage by the al Qaida-linked terrorists as they were holding service Sunday.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obeidi said "the terrorists were planning to murder the highest number of hostages."
"All the marks point out that this incident carries the fingerprints of al Qaeda," he added Sunday on state television.
Since the attack, Islamic State of Iraq has claimed responsibility for the attack through a statement posted on a radical Islamic website. It also said it would "exterminate Iraqi Christians" if Muslim women are not freed within 48 hours from ministries and churches run by the Christian Coptic church in Egypt.
Across Iraq, security forces were alerted to new threats against Christians.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, meanwhile, said France “firmly” condemned the "terrorist action," which he noted as the latest in a deadly campaign of targeted violence which has already led to more than 40 deaths among the Christians of Iraq this year.
"France repeats its attachment to the respect of fundamental liberties such as religious freedom and supports the Iraqi authorities in their struggle against terrorism," Kouchner added.
In Iraq, ongoing persecution and violence has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee the country. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimated last year that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, up to 500,000 Christians had left the country. That translates to about half the Christian population leaving within the short time span of six years.
Sunni Muslim insurgents have frequently targeted members of Iraq's Christian minority, especially in Mosul, which is home to a large Christian community. Some extremist Sunnis consider Christians to be supporters of the Shiite-led government they oppose.