Mourners outside the Sayidat al-Nejat Church in Baghdad.(Mohammed Tawfeeq/CNN)
As the sun set over Baghdad, shocked onlookers stood by, watching a truck laden with debris drive away from the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church.
Silvana Maro stood outside her home near the church, eyes filled with tears, in such shock she could hardly speak. She was a survivor, now plagued by the vivid memory of what she had lived through.
Mass was in process when the attackers stormed in.
“There was gunfire, grenades. Shrapnel was flying from all sides. We scattered and threw ourselves to the ground, we didn’t know what would happen to us” She whispered softly, choking on her words.
“They said if anyone lifts their head we will shoot. My cousin moved slightly. They shot him, his brains exploded all over”.
Anna Hannow held her aunt’s bloodied purse, the stench of death still fresh. Her aunt was eighty years old.
“They shot her in the face, there was nothing left of her face” She told us.
As the sun set a coffin was carried in. A woman sobbed, comforted in vain by another onlooker. Iraqi forces kept the media and bystanders away.
There was a time when Christianity and Islam co-existed peacefully in Iraq, but the Christian community here has not been spared the ravages of the country's sectarian warfare. Over the years their numbers have dwindled with more choosing to leave every week.
For some staying is the only option. Others choose to do so out of conviction, refusing to allow violence and threats to drive them from the country they call home.
The attack on Sunday was the first of its kind. According to the a senior official with the Ministry of Interior, the insurgents first targeted the Baghdad Stock Exchange and blew up two car bombs as a diversion, to draw in the Iraqi unit manning the checkpoints close to the church.
As mass was in full progress – with some 120 worshippers – the attackers, some wearing suicide vests, stormed the building and wreaked carnage. Dozens were killed.
The Islamic state of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al Qaeda claimed responsibility. Their demand was the release of prisoners in Iraq and Egypt. Their statement said the hostage taking was a direct warning to the Egyptian Coptic Church, a response to the case of two Egyptian women allegedly abducted by the Coptic Church after they converted to Islam.
A young man who survived said “They brought us the real Halloween”.
The faces of those we met reflected the extent of the horror their words could not express.
Posted by: Arwa Damon, CNN Correspondent
Filed under: Christianity Iraq