Last Updated: Sat Nov 13, 2010 19:10 pm (KSA) 16:10 pm (GMT)

Egypt Copts scarp pope celebration after Iraq Church attack

Iraqi Orthodox Christians, the Assyrians, in Chicago protest Baghdad church massacre
Iraqi Orthodox Christians, the Assyrians, in Chicago protest Baghdad church massacre

Egypt's Coptic church scrapped a celebration on Saturday to mark Pope Shenuda III ordination in solidarity with the Christians of Iraq after the Baghdad church bloodbath, state news agency MENA reported.

Al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq said its gunmen carried out the October 31 attack in the Iraqi capital and threatened to target the region's Christians if the Coptic church did not release two women rumoured to have converted to Islam.

A source in the Coptic church, quoted by MENA, denied the 39th anniversary of Shenuda's ordination as pope to be held in Cairo later on Saturday was called off because of the threat from Islamist militants.

The pope had "deemed it appropriate... because of the conditions that the region is going through," said the unnamed source.

"The monstrous crime" in Baghdad "has affected the whole world. Solidarity with the church in Iraq and mourning for the victims are the least of the obligations of the Coptic church and churches in the region," he said.

"There is no link to the threats by al-Qaeda," the source said, adding that it was otherwise business as usual for the Coptic church.

President Hosni Mubarak has condemned the threats and promised to protect the Copts, who make up between six and 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million population and who have been the targets of sectarian attacks in the past.

At least 46 hostages, including two priests, were killed during a hostage drama with Al-Qaeda gunmen in Baghdad's Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Catholic cathedral during Sunday mass at the end of last month.

Security around Coptic churches in Egypt has been tightened since the church attack, which has also been condemned by Egyptian Islamic figures.

Thousands protest attacks against Iraqi Christians

Several thousand people from across Europe gathered in Brussels Saturday to protest a recent escalation of violence against Christians in Iraq.

"We want our voice to be heard by the European community," said Suleyman Gultekin of the European Syriac Union, which organized the march. "We are attacked systematically" in Iraq.

Syriac Christians have lived in the Middle East for centuries and now make up a small minority in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

The demonstration follows a string of violent attacks against the Christian community in Iraq, which has already dwindled from 1.5 million to about 400,000 over the past decade.

Gunmen stormed a Sunday Mass service in Baghdad on Oct. 31, killing 68 people - including two priests - and injuring many others. On Wednesday, five people were killed and 20 wounded in more than a dozen bombings and mortar attacks targeting Christian families in the Iraqi capital.

"Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iraqi government was not able to protect us," Gultekin told The Associated Press. "So, our conclusion is that we need an autonomy in the north of Iraq to protect our people and to be in a safe and secure place."

Police estimated that about 4,000 people marched in the demonstration in pouring rain, although organizers said there were many more.

They carried pictures of the two priests killed in the attack on the church and chanted slogans condemning violence against Christians in French, English and Arabic.

Kamil Aho, a 30-year old Syrian, traveled to Brussels by bus from Paderborn, in northwestern Germany. "We are shouting so that everyone in the world can hear" what has been happening, he said.

The march, led by a group of Syriac priests, culminated in a rally in front of the headquarters of the European Commission, the European Union's executive.

"Right now everybody is afraid," said Father Noel al-Castoma, a Syriac priest who fled Iraq in 2004 and now lives in the Netherlands.

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