Iraqi Christians Remember Church Siege Victims, 40 Days Later

Iraqi Christians gathered in Our Lady of Salvation church Friday morning to remember the dozens of worshippers who died there 40 days ago.

The morning mass followed an evening of prayers which drew the participation of more than 100 people. Worshippers sat on plastic chairs which were set up in place of destroyed pews.

Father Amir Jaje, the superior of the Dominican Order in Baghdad, told Agence France-Presse that many of the participants were present during the Oct. 31 attacks or were related to the victims and they "all needed some moral support."

"Despite the terror and the violence that happened here, they came here once again and expressed their love for those who died," he said.

On Oct. 31, armed militants, some wearing suicide vests, stormed the Catholic church in Baghdad during a Sunday afternoon mass. At least 80 worshippers were taken hostage. Hours later, Iraqi special forces raided the church at which point the explosives went off.

The attack left 58 people, mostly congregants, dead and 75 people wounded. Considered the deadliest attack against the Iraqi Christian community since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003, the siege has left the city's Christians shaken.

"We stay at home. We are afraid to go out, afraid to move," Maha al-Khoury told CNN during Thursday night's prayer.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni Islamic insurgent groups that include al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack at the Catholic church. Since then, Christians have been targeted in their homes and businesses.

The most recent killings took place on Sunday when an elderly couple was gunned down in their home.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Christian population has shrunk from 1.2 million to 600,000, by some estimates. The Oct. 31 attack has prompted more Christians to leave or consider leaving the violence-ridden country.

Many say the violence is only getting worse and that little is being done to prevent it.

"At first, they (insurgents) evicted Christians from their homes, then they began killing them," Father Simon told AFP. "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."

Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, a persecution watchdog, went as far as to call what's happening in Iraq "religion-cide."

"Baghdad right now is just gripped by terrorism against the Christian community and there is no other way to put it," he said earlier. "Extremists are concentrating their efforts to eliminate Christianity from that country."

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