Photos of the dead church members stood before the altar and two black cassocks hung from the walls in honor of two murdered priests, the Associated Press reported Dec. 25. The walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church were pocked with bullet holes and sheets of plastic covered windows shattered in the attack.
Many Christmas celebrations were canceled because of security concerns, the AP noted. The assault on the church was followed by a string of bombings in Christian neighborhoods.
Before the war, Christians in Iraq numbered as high as 1.4 million, the AP reported, but Christian leaders now estimate as few as 400,000 remain. The exodus of Christians from the country has increased since the October attack. On Dec. 14, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the United States to "redouble its efforts" in helping protect Iraq's persecuted Christian community. On Dec. 21, a worldwide group of 90-plus legislators -- declaring that Christians are rapidly becoming "extinct" in Iraq and other Middle East countries -- called on President Obama to make protecting them a top priority.
Some of the Christians attending Christmas services, however, asserted their determination to remain in their country.
Adiba Youssef, a 52-year-old woman who attended the service with her family, told a reporter: "I love my country. I buried my parents here. I can't leave it.... We believe in God, and he will protect us." Laith Amir said: "The church was baptized by the blood of the martyrs. gave us more motivation to come to the church and to celebrate Christmas in spite of what has happened to us."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned efforts to drive Christians out of the country, the AP reported.
"The attempts to keep Christians away from their homeland and their land, which clung to them through the centuries, is a great crime against national unity," al-Maliki said in a statement on his website Saturday marking the Christmas holiday.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly.
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