Christians mourn dead from Iraq church attack

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Iraq's dwindling Christian community was grieving and fearful last night after militants seized a Baghdad church during evening Mass, held the congregation hostage and triggered a raid by Iraqi security forces that left 52 people dead and 67 wounded.

The attack, claimed by an al-Qa'ida-linked organization, was believed to be the deadliest ever recorded against Iraq's Christians. Outside Our Lady of Deliverance church, Raed Hadi waited for police to let him bury his cousin's body in church grounds.

"It was a massacre in there and now they are cleaning it up," he said. "We Christians don't have enough protection... What shall I do now? Leave and ask for asylum?"

"Now they make a show," said Jamal Jaju, who watched as Iraqi forces cordoned off the area. "What can I say? I lost at least 20 friends in there."

Pope Benedict XVI denounced the assault and called for renewed efforts to broker peace in the region. Catholics made up 2.89 per cent of Iraq's population in 1980; by 2008 they were merely 0.89 per cent. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also condemned the siege.

Sunday's bloodbath began at dusk, when militants wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades attacked the Iraqi stock exchange. The gunmen then went inside the church and took about 120 Christians hostage.

Maj-Gen Hussein Ali Kamal, the deputy interior minister, said 52 people were killed and 67 wounded. The dead included ten policemen, two priests and up to eight attackers. It was unclear whether the hostages died at the hands of the attackers or during the rescue.