Baghdad: Iraqi Christians on Sunday reaffirmed their faith in the face of al Qaeda, as 200 people celebrated mass in a bloodstained Baghdad cathedral where militants massacred 46 worshippers a week ago.
"The church is built on the love, the peace and the blood of the martyrs, not on the sword," Father Mukhlas Habash told parishioners gathered around a cross of burning candles, traced out on the floor of an otherwise bare nave.
The candles illuminated pieces of paper with the names of the 44 worshippers and two priests who were killed last Sunday after al Qaeda gunmen stormed the Syriac Christian cathedral in the heart of Baghdad and seized hostages.
By the time the drama ended after Iraqi forces raided the building, dozens of people had died, including Taher and Wassim, two priests who heroically tried to plead with the gunmen to spare the lives of their flock.
"Today we will pray for those who attacked us, attacked our church and killed fathers Taher and Wassim," Habash said in a homily given at about the same time the Sayidat al-Nejat cathedral was attacked seven days previously.
Images of the dead were to be seen everywhere yesterday, on posters on bloodstained and bullet-pocked walls, by the candles and on laminated photos passed out among the faithful.
Along the length and on both sides of the candle-lit cross stood worshippers, among them wounded survivors, holding candles as a passing priest blessed them with incense.
The marks of the carnage were everywhere, on bullet-holed walls, chipped and broken woodwork, and cracked marble of some of the pillars. From the cupola, a disfigured fresco of the Virgin Mary looked down.
Following the attack the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility in a statement that also said Christians everywhere were henceforth "legitimate targets”.
But today Father Habash sought to reassure his flock. "Jesus said do not have fear," he told the congregation.
In the chancel, portraits of the victims lay amid a mountain of bouquets at the foot of a large wooden cross.
Some of the faithful said they would not have missed this first mass since the deadly events of a week ago for all the world. The service was celebrated under tight security.