Iraqi Christians hold Mass at church of deadly attack

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Christians celebrated Christmas Mass on Saturday in a Baghdad church that was the scene of a brutal al-Qaida assault, facing stark symbols of the price of faith: photos of dead parishioners in front of the altar and, hanging from the wall, black cassocks representing two slain priests.

The Oct. 31 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church was the deadliest ever against Christians in Iraq, killing 68 people. It and a string of bombings that followed prompted thousands of Christians to flee to Iraq's more peaceful Kurdish-run north — and renewed al-Qaida threats cast a shadow over Saturday's celebrations.

But the 300 worshippers who gathered on Christmas morning insisted they would not be driven away.

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

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. The sound of helicopters buzzing overhead competed with the church service below; the building is now surrounded by concrete blast barriers and a phalanx of security officers.

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

At the church on Saturday, pictures of many of the victims — including several children — were arranged with flowers on the steps in front of the altar. Parishioners said they would not be cowed into abandoning their faith or their country.

"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. Still, 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.

The few church services that were held Christmas Day in other parts of the country were generally subdued affairs.