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Church leader calls for Christians to leave Iraq after brutal attack

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Iraq's Christians remember victims
  • Archbishop Athanasios Dawood says the Iraqi government does not protect minorities
  • He calls on the British government to grant Christians living in Iraq humanitarian asylum
  • His appeal comes one week to the day after a brutal attack on a church in Baghdad
  • The church celebrated Mass Sunday as parishioners lit candles for those who died

(CNN) -- A Syriac Orthodox archbishop in Britain called for all Christians in Iraq to leave the country Sunday, one week to the day after gunmen stormed a Catholic church in Baghdad.

Some 50 people were killed and 75 wounded in the attack at the Sayidat al-Nejat church last week, including women, children and two priests.

Archbishop Athanasios Dawood slammed the Iraqi government for not doing enough to protect the rights of minorities and urged Christians to quit the country.

"I say clearly and now -- the Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing. This is better than having them killed one by one," said Dawood, according to prepared remarks he sent to CNN.

Speaking at a service in London, he also asked the British government, and those in other European countries, to grant asylum to Christians living in Iraq.

Dozens dead in Iraqi hostage situation

"The Iraqi government is weak, biased, if not extremist. It does not protect us and the other minorities. It has ignored our legal rights. We ask the British government, the EU and the U.N. to protect us," he said.

"I ask the British government again to help the Iraqi Christians and grant them the rights of humanitarian asylum in order to preserve what is left of the victims who do not carry a weapon to fight and kill," said Dawood.

His call came a week after the brutal siege on a Baghdad church.

The Islamic State of Iraq, which has local ties to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack, which was set off when gunman stormed the church and took worshippers hostage. Security forces rushed inside hours later, ending the standoff. The radical group has said all Christians in the Middle East are "legitimate targets."

On Sunday, evidence of the horrific clash still clung to the walls. Blood stains, bullet holes and black residue from an explosion smeared the sides of the church.

Parishioners came to celebrate Mass and to place candles in the shape of a cross on the floor to honor those who died. Most who spoke to CNN said they would not allow terror to prevail, but also expressed fear.

"My nerves are frayed. I can't feel my body. I feel like my blood dried up. My whole body is shaking because what I am seeing is unimaginable," said Linda Hagob, a congregant.

The church, which before the attack was open for morning and evening Mass on Sundays, will be open daily now.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, at Saint Joseph's Church, about a dozen worshippers attended evening Mass, significantly less than a typical turnout, the parish priest said.

Father Saad Sirop Hanna said Christians in Iraq are scared of more attacks. He blamed Iraqi politicians, who have been unable to form a government since elections there in March, for much of the violence.

"We blame the government and all the politicians. We consider what happened last Sunday in the church an effect of what they are doing now, and we want all the good people to move and put an end to this situation," he said.

Hanna also responded to Dawood's call for Christians to quit Iraq.

"Staying or leaving -- we will leave it to the people to decide ... I can understand this bishop, this priest, I can understand him. I agree with him from a certain point of view, but I disagree with him from another."

"We are afraid, but not desperate," Hanna said.

CNN's Bharati Naik in London and Jomana Karadsheh and Arwa Damon, both in Baghdad, contributed to this report.