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Iraqi forces free hostages from church; 19 killed

ICC Note:

As many as 37 Iraqis were killed in a Baghdad church on Sunday, most of whom were Christians taken hostage at a worship service by al-Qaeda linked militants.  Christians throughout Iraq continue to be victimized by the Shi’ite – Sunni battle for power, and have been left helpless without receiving the necessary protection by security forces.

By Lara Jakes

10/31/2010 Iraq (The Washington Post) – Islamic militants held around 120 Iraqi Christians hostage for nearly four hours in a church Sunday before security forces stormed the building and freed them, ending a standoff that left at least 19 people dead, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. 

Security officials said the militants, who were allegedly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, were on the phone with Iraqi authorities demanding the release of imprisoned female insurgents when security forces stormed the building.

The standoff began at dusk when the militants attacked the nearby Iraqi stock exchange, officials said. Police then chased the insurgents toward the Our Lady of Deliverance church – one of Baghdad’s main Catholic places of worship.

Worshippers inside were listening to a Bible reading when the gunmen burst in, said parishioner Marzina Matti Yalda.

“As we went outside the hall to see what was happening, gunmen stormed the main gate and they started to shoot at us,” Yalda said. “Many people fell down, including a priest, while some of us ran inside and took shelter in a locked room. We were packed together as we waited for the security forces to arrive.”

A U.S. Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, said at least 19 people were killed – seven hostages, seven Iraqi security troops and five militants. He said the assailants were wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades. As many as 30 people were wounded, including a priest and a nun, he said.

Iraqi military officials said the death toll was at least nine, while police and medical officials put it as high as 37. The figures could not be immediately reconciled.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obeidi said “the terrorists were planning to murder the highest number of hostages.” Across Iraq, security forces were alerted to new threats against Christians.

A cryptically worded statement posted late Sunday on a militant website allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq appeared to claim responsibility for the attack. The group, which is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, said it would “exterminate Iraqi Christians” if Muslim women are not freed within 48 hours from ministries and churches run by the Christian Coptic church in Egypt.

The message’s authenticity could not be immediately verified.

Iraqi Christians, who have been frequent targets for Sunni insurgents, have left in droves since the 2003 U.S.-led war. Some 1.25 million Christians, 80 percent of them Catholic, used to live in Iraq. There are an estimated 870,000 left today.

“The government shoulders some responsibility when it fails to protect its citizens,” said Younadim Kanna, an Iraqi parliamentarian who is Christian. “Despite all of these terrorist attacks against the Christians, we are determined not to leave our country. And we will not be intimidated.”

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