An Iraqi court sentenced three men to death Tuesday for masterminding a church siege last year that killed 68 people in one of the most horrific attacks on the nation's Christian minority.
Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said the three men were found guilty of planning and preparing the Oct. 31 attack, when al-Qaida suicide bombers held worshippers hostage at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation cathedral for hours before detonating explosives belts. The attack horrified Iraqis and Christians across the world.
Bayrkdar said the three men have a month to appeal. He said a fourth man linked to the attack was sentenced earlier to 20 years in prison. The names of the men were not released.
Baghdad's Christian community welcomed the verdict.
"Anyone who kills the innocent _ Muslims or Christians _ should be punished as a lesson to other bad people," said the Rev. Aysar Kesko, a priest at Our Lady of Salvation. "We hope to have justice in the country, and for Iraqi people live in peace and trust the government."
The brutal attack was the peak of a wave of violence against Iraqi Christians, and spurred the Vatican and U.S. lawmakers to demand better protections for the nation's dwindling Christian population. A State Department report says Christian leaders estimate that 400,000 to 600,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from a prewar level of as high as 1.4 million, by some estimates.
Despite the exodus, the small community remains a target for insurgents, and on Tuesday a car bomb blew up outside of a church in the northern city of Kirkuk, wounding 23 people.
City police chief Maj. Gen. Jamal Tahir said police discovered two more car bombs parked outside two other Kirkuk churches.
"The terrorists want to make us flee Iraq, but they will fail," said the Rev. Haithem Akram, a priest at one of the churches. "We are staying in our country. The Iraqi Christians are easy targets because they do not have militias to protect them. The terrorists want to terrorize us, but they will fail."
The car outside the Syrian Catholic church blew up early Tuesday morning, severely damaging the church and nearby houses, said police Col. Taha Salaheddin.
The parish's leader, the Rev. Imad Yalda, was the only person inside at the time of the blast and was wounded. The 22 other wounded were people whose nearby homes were damaged by the blast, Tahir said.
The ethnically and religiously mixed city of Kirkuk is located 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Sunni extremists often target Christians who are seen as unbelievers.
Matti reported from Kirkuk, Iraq. Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Sinan Salaheddin and Lara Jakes in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.