Hundreds of Iraqi Christians attended mass under heavy security on Friday to mark 40 days since dozens of worshippers were killed in an Al-Qaeda siege that sparked an international outcry.

Teary-eyed parishioners, diplomats, and politicians gathered in the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Syriac Catholic church, seated on plastic garden chairs as priests read aloud the names of the 46 people who died, recited prayers and sang hymns.

Outside, dozens of armed soldiers, policemen and private security contractors stood guard as streets were closed off to vehicle traffic, and men and women alike were frisked on entry.

The head of the Syriac Catholic Church, Ignatius Joseph III Yunan, told the congregation of his "sadness" over the "disaster," while praying for unity to return to Iraq."We came here in order to pray to God for Iraq to be better. God will never give up on you. God will make the sons of this country united," said the patriarch, who came from Lebanon for the ceremony.

Later, appealing to an international audience, he spoke briefly in English, before repeating his message in French and Italian: "Do not consider Iraq the land of (economic) opportunities.""Just remember, it is a nation with living people -- they deserve life."Several people wept as a crowd of more than 500 paid their respects inside the church, which still bears the scars of the October 31 siege.

Large posters of the two priests who were among the dead -- Father Wassim, 23, and Taher Saadallah Boutros, 32 -- adorned the entry gate to the church, and pictures of all 46 victims were put up around the building.Bullet marks were still visible in the building's walls, and shards of wood were broken off its main entry doors, while its wood-panelled columns had multiple chunks broken off.

Outside, a handful of demonstrators held up placards that read "Stop Killing Christians" and called for the results of an investigation into the attack to be published.The siege began, according to witnesses, when heavily armed militants burst into the church during Sunday mass and took about 80 worshippers hostage. It ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces.

The attack, which claimed the lives of seven Iraqi security force members and the five hostage-takers, was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliate which has declared all Christians to be legitimate targets.

"We cannot deny the reality that the hands of those who committed this crime were controlled by minds full of hatred," the patriarch said."Their (victims') blood will purify the biggest mistake in the world -- people who kill because of differences of religion."

Hannady Haitham, who worked as a translator for Wassim Sabih, one of the two priests killed, said the community was struggling to cope with the loss."It's very sad for me, for all of us, but as a friend of the priests, I see them in the faces of the people," Haitham said at the church on Friday.

"I miss (Father Wassim), but I still feel him here. He was very caring for the young, the elderly, the sick."One priest announced the robes of the slain clergymen, which were hung on display at the head of the church aisle, would "be given to God."

The attacks against Christians has prompted many to flee Iraq, while those who remain fear for their lives."Now, I feel a great emptiness in my heart because we have lost them," Nada Wadia Dawood told AFP after the mass.

"We, all Christians, are convinced we will be killed because of our religion," the parliament worker added, standing in the church's main courtyard. "All of us are just waiting for this day."The words of Jesus were realised when he said, 'you will be killed because of me'. This is really happening to us now."

Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion of 2003.Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to about 500,000 as the community's members have fled abroad in the face of the violence.

By Prashant Rao for



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