- Associated Press - Saturday, December 25, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Christians gathered Saturday to mark Christmas in the same church where, less than two months ago, dozens from their beleaguered community were killed by Muslim extremists intent on driving them from Iraq.

The walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting covered gaps where glass windows used to be, and small pieces of dried flesh and blood remain stuck to the ceiling.

In front of the altar were photos of the dead parishioners, and twin black cassocks hung from the walls representing the two priests killed in the October bloodbath.

“No matter how hard the storm blows, love will save us,” Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka told the congregation.

The storm has blown violently against Iraqi Christians this fall.

Gunmen stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Church Oct. 31, taking more than 120 people hostage in a siege that ended with 68 people dead. Days later, a string of bombings outside Christian homes and in Christian neighborhoods hammered home the threat.

Iraqi church officials canceled many Christmas celebrations, such as appearances by Santa Claus or evening Mass, out of fear for their parishioners’ safety after al Qaeda this week threatened more violence against them. The toned-down celebrations were also a sign of respect for the suffering the community has undergone.

But many of the more than 300 people gathered Saturday at the church, now surrounded by concrete blast barriers and a phalanx of security officers, said they would not be cowed into abandoning their faith or their country. Outside the building hung a homemade sign that said the church would prosper during times of oppression.

“I love my country. I buried my parents here. I can’t leave it,” said Adiba Youssef, a 52-year-old woman who came to the morning service with her family.

“We believe in God, and he will protect us.”

Some of the parishioners said they had not bought a Christmas tree and felt little cause for joy. Laith Amir said he and his family stay home most of the time because they’re too afraid to go out. They did not purchase presents or a tree, but he said the church attack strengthened the will of many Christians.

“The church was baptized by the blood of the martyrs. It gave us more motivation to come to the church and to celebrate Christmas in spite of what has happened to us,” he said.

Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 Christians still live in Iraq, according to a recent State Department report. At one time before the war, that number was as high as 1.4 million by some estimates.

U.N. officials estimate that about 1,000 Christian families have fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq following the church siege.

Many Christians have gone to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad. The three provinces that make up the Kurdish region are much safer than many other parts of Iraq. Sheat Jubran came with his three children after the church siege but relief was tempered by sadness Saturday.

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