Hundreds of Christians packed Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church for Christmas on Saturday, defying threats of attacks less than two months after militants massacred worshippers and priests there.

Security was extremely tight, with forces armed with pistols and assault rifles guarding the area and a 10-foot high (three-metre) concrete wall topped with gleaming razor wire surrounding the church.All cars entering the area were searched, and worshippers were patted down twice before being allowed into the church.

The mood was sombre after an October 31 attack claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq in which gunmen stormed the church, leaving two priests, 44 worshippers and seven security personnel dead.

The church, which was filled with more than 300 worshippers, still bears signs of the attack, its walls pockmarked from bullets and the destroyed wooden pews replaced with plastic and metal chairs.

The attack has left many reeling.

"Last year, we were all gathering" for Christmas, said Uday Saadallah Abdal. But "this year, I went to the house, and I saw it was empty... I was crying all night, because no one was here any more."

The 28-year-old said two of his brothers were killed in the attack -- one of the priests, Father Thair, and another brother Raed. His mother was also shot three times, and is hospitalised in France.

"I feel that their souls are still there in the church; that is why I came. They encourage me to come here despite all the danger and threats," Abdal said of his brothers.

"We are afraid, but despite that, we are coming" for mass, Rana Nikhail said. "We have to be here, because it is the birthday of the Messiah."But "we cannot feel happy because tears are in our eyes, and people we love are not with us any more," the 35-year-old added.

Ten days after the deadly siege, a string of attacks targeted the homes of Christians in Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 others.Threats have also been made against Iraqi Christians.

Chaldean Catholic archbishop Monsignor Louis Sarko in Kirkuk said on Tuesday that he "and 10 other Christian personages received threats from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq."

Syrian Catholic Archbishop Matti Motaka called for people to maintain hope despite all the hardships."Our message is for people not to give up and to have hope in this life," Motaka said after the mass.

"We have hope, because Jesus is with us all the time, during all the difficulties that we face," but because of the attack, "there is a great wound in the heart of the church."Some worshippers asserted that despite the attacks and threats, they were not afraid, or at least not enough to stay away from Christmas mass.

"We have no fear at all. We are insisting on coming to the church for prayer and mass," said 40-year-old Tomas Rafo."We are here to support each other, to support the families of the victims, and to challenge terrorism," he said, adding: "Sadness is still in our hearts because of the attack, because of losing people that we love."

Fikrat Pack, 52, said: "There is sadness, but not fear. If we were afraid, the church would be empty. People are sad but not afraid, that is why they are here."We cannot give up our religion and our church because of an attack."

Speaker of parliament Osama al-Nujaifi urged Iraqi Christians, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled abroad amid unrest since the 2003 US-led invasion, to stay."Iraqis don't want the sound of the (church) bells to stop," Nujaifi said at the opening of the Saturday session of parliament.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also expressed solidarity with Christians on Saturday, and called on them to remain in Iraq."The attempts at eliminating the Christians from their country and land is a huge crime against national unity," he said in a statement.

"We strongly call on (Christians) to stay in their country, to commit to their country and participate in building and reconstructing it."Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta said no incidents were reported on Saturday.

"Our leadership took a series of security measures to protect the churches, through deploying forces around all churches," he said."We are on alert for the mass, but we have no fear that the attacks on Our Lady of Salvation may be repeated," said Atta.

Copyright © 2010 AFP



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