Iraq massacre: the devil's hand

At the funeral in Baghdad yesterday for the dozens of Christian hostages killed by Al-Qaeda gunmen on Sunday, the Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, head of Iraq's largest Catholic church, said the victims had been struck by "the devil's hand."

Six young foreign-born Islamic militants burst into the Syrian Catholic Our Lady of Deliverance church in the Iraqi capital during Sunday Mass, firing into the congregation. They took about 80 worshippers hostage, claiming that the Church  was holding converts to Islam hostage.

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Iraqi special forces later entered the cathedral, leading the militants to set off exploding vests. Iraqi officials say 46 Christians -- including two priests -- were killed and 60 wounded; seven members of the security forces also died.

In Rome, Pope Benedict said he prayed for the victims of what he called "this absurd violence, all the more ferocious in that it struck defenceless people united in the house of God, which is a place of love and reconciliation."

"Confronted with atrocious episodes of violence which continues to tear apart the populations of the Middle East," he added, "I want to renew my call for peace."

Some 700 worshippers, together with government representatives and delegates from different  religious and ethnic communities in Iraq, packed the St Joseph Chaldean church to pray for the dead. During the Mass, the coffins of the two priests, Taher Saadallah Boutros, 32, and Wassim Sabih, 23, were laid out on a table. The two priests, said to have been inseparable friends in life, were later buried next to each other at a cemetery next to the cathedral.

Both priests had pleaded with the gunmen to kill them but spare the hostages.

According to AFP, The uncle of Fr Boutros said: "Taher was praying and reading a passage from the Bible when the armed men arrived. He told them: 'kill me but let the worshippers go in peace'." The gunmen told Fr Boutros to convert to Islam "because in any case you will die", then shot him in the head.

Cardinal Delly said in his homily that the victims "came to church to pray to God and fulfill their religious duty, but the devil's hand entered the holy place to kill."

He said the Christians of Iraq "are the sons of this country and we will stay with our Muslim brothers in Iraq, side by side, to glorify the name of Iraq".

But Sunday's atrocities are likely to make a fearful community even more afraid to attend Mass and encourage still further emigration.

One thing the Iraqi Catholics were keen to stress at the recent synod in Rome was that they suffer what other, ordinary, Muslim Iraqis also suffer -- and there was plenty of evidence of that yesterday, as a series of bombs rocked mainly Shi'ite areas of Baghdad, killing at least 40 people and wounding dozens.

Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has added his voice to the chorus of condemnation, coming also from Muslim leaders, across the world. The Ayatollah yesterday condemned what he called "the criminal action against our Christian brothers".

The Iraqi government has promised to treat the wounded, compensate families of the dead and repair the church, starting immediately.

The group behind the massacre, the Islamic State of Iraq, says all Christian groups are now "legitimate targets" for the "mujahadeen".

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