BAGHDAD The leader of Iraq's Catholics denounced on Monday the attack on a church in Baghdad that killed 52 people, calling for security in the country to be stepped up.
Sunday's al Qaeda attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church during mass was the bloodiest against Iraqi Christians in the seven years of sectarian war that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, church officials said.
"We denounce the killing of (this) large number of innocent people and the attack against those who were praying and asking God for love and peace," Emmanuel III Delly, the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, told Reuters.
"What I have asked for before and what I'm still asking for is that protection must be provided immediately for all believers and all people without exception," he said after visiting the blood-splattered church.
The raid on the Assyrian Catholic church, one of Baghdad's largest, lasted several hours and ended with police storming the church to free more than 100 hostages seized by the guerrillas.
Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal, a deputy interior minister, said 52 hostages and police were killed and 67 wounded.
"What happened in the church is tormenting for us. We feel resentful for what happened against innocent Christians as equally we feel sorry for what is happening to our Muslim brothers," Delly said.
Iraq's Christians, who once numbered 1.5 million out of a total Iraqi population of 30 million, have frequently been targeted by militants since the invasion, with churches bombed and priests assassinated. Many have fled.
While overall violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the peak of sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07, concerns remain that a political vacuum eight months after an inconclusive election is being exploited by insurgents.
Iraq's main Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurd factions have so far been unable to agree on the formation of a new government, adding to tension as U.S. forces reduce their presence and end combat operations before a full withdrawal next year.
Attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militia continue.
"If there is no security, then no peace, stability or prosperity can be achieved," Delly said.
Christian denominations in Iraq include Chaldeans, Copts, Roman and Melkite Catholics, Maronites and Greek Orthodox.
(Writing by Serena Chaudhry)