- Associated Press - Monday, November 1, 2010

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s dwindling Christian community was grieving and afraid Monday after militants seized a Baghdad church during evening Mass, held the congregation hostage and triggered a raid by Iraqi security forces. The bloodbath left at least 58 people dead and 78 wounded — nearly everyone inside.

The attack, claimed by an al Qaeda-linked group, was the deadliest recorded against Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have plummeted since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as the community has fled to other countries.

Pope Benedict XVI denounced the assault on Our Lady of Salvation Church as “ferocious” and called for renewed international efforts to broker peace in the region.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also condemned the siege, saying it was an attempt to drive more Christians out of the country.

Islamic militants have systematically attacked Christians in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Catholics made up 2.89 percent of Iraq’s population in 1980; by 2008 they were merely 0.89 percent.

Sunday’s bloodbath began at dusk, when a car bomb went off in the area, and then militants wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades attacked the Iraqi stock exchange.

The car bombing and the attack on the stock exchange, in which only two guards were injured, may have been an attempt by the militants to divert attention from their real target — the nearby church, in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood.

That attack soon followed. The gunmen went inside the church and took about 120 Christians hostage.

At least 58 people were killed, including 12 policemen as well as five bystanders thought to have been killed by the car bombing and blasts outside the church before the attackers stormed inside. Forty-one Christians inside the church also died, including two priests.

It was unclear whether most hostages died before or during the rescue.

An Iraqi official who was on the scene as the hostage drama unfolded said he talked on a cell phone with one of the hostages during the siege. He said the hostage described how insurgents began shooting wildly when they went into the church and said he could see about 40 wounded people lying around him on the floor.

The Iraqi official said he then spoke on the phone to one of the militants. During the four-minute conversation, the militant demanded that Iraqi authorities release its al Qaeda prisoners and stressed that all female prisoners should be released immediately. The official said he judged by the militant’s accent and speech that he was not Iraqi.

When Iraqi special forces joined police and other officials already on the scene, they heard gunshots and decided to enter the church “to prevent the further loss of innocent lives,” said Army Lt. Col. Terry L. Conder, a spokesman for U.S. special forces.

When the Iraqis stormed the building, the militants were shooting at the hostages, the Iraqi official said.

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