BAGHDAD – After the gunmen killed the priest and nearly everyone in the first row, an eerie quiet descended over the pews. The only occasional sounds were sporadic gunfire, the muffled cries of the hostages and the shouts of Islamic militants — sometimes over their cell phones.
Suddenly the lights went out. Iraqi forces began entering the building, telling parishioners: “We will save you.”
Then a shattering blast shook the church as a suicide bomber set off his explosives.
By the time the siege of Our Lady of Salvation church was over Sunday night, 58 people were dead and 78 wounded — nearly everyone inside the building.
The attack, claimed by an al-Qaida-linked organization, was the deadliest recorded against Iraq’s Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion unleashed a wave of violence against them.
The scope of the slaughter only became clear on Monday after a long night of confusion and conflicting reports. Iraqi officials had initially provided a much lower death toll.
Pope Benedict XVI denounced the militants’ assault as “ferocious,” the White House condemned it as “senseless” and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said it harkened back to the days of sectarian warfare between Muslim sects.
Christians who cowered for hours inside the stone building that used to be their peaceful sanctuary wondered why they were yet again the target of violence.
“They are criminals and more than criminals. What type of man kills people at prayer? What have we done to receive this?” said Aida Jameel, a 65-year-old Christian woman who was shot in her leg.
The violence began around 5:30 Sunday evening in what a senior Iraqi security official said appeared to be a suicide mission.
The official described the attack as it unfolded based on a preliminary internal investigation by Iraqi authorities that depended, in part, on statements from survivors. His chilling account was verified by other Iraqi security officials at the scene, the U.S. military in Baghdad, and interviews of survivors who spoke to The Associated Press.
Shortly before sunset, the gunmen drove a black Jeep Cherokee to the church. They blew it up, destroying their getaway car, and set off four small bombs in the neighborhood. In a brief shootout at the nearby Iraq stock exchange, the militants wounded two policemen.
Seven or eight militants then charged through the front doors of the church, interrupting the evening Mass service. They rushed down the aisle, brandishing their machine guns and spraying the room with bullets.
They ordered the priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women who they claimed were being held captive by the Coptic church in Egypt. When the priest said he could not do that, the gunmen shot him and turned their guns on the congregation, killing most of those in the front pew.
One woman told investigators she survived only because her father wrapped himself around her body in a shield that ultimately killed him.
During the next three hours, Iraqi military officials tried to negotiate with the insurgents who refused to back off their demands. The gunmen also called reporters from the Egypt-based satellite TV al-Baghdadiya channel. The channel’s Baghdad office went off the air Monday in a dispute with Iraqi authorities about their role in the incident.
“I only heard people weeping, probably because they were hurt and in pain,” said Rauf Naamat, one of the worshippers. “Most people were too afraid to produce a sound. They feared militants would kill them, if they heard them.”
More than three hours into the attack, Iraqi security forces turned off the lights. Naamat said he could hear a voice telling parishioners: “We are Iraqi forces. Stand up and keep quiet. We will save you.”
He said he saw a militant approach the security forces as they made their way to the altar. The man then detonated his explosives best, unleashing a massive blast.
There were conflicting accounts of anywhere from one to seven gunmen blowing themselves up. According to two security officials, most of the deaths took place in the basement where a gunman killed about 30 hostages when Iraqi forces began to enter the church. One official said the gunman set off an explosives vest he was wearing, but the other said the gunman threw two grenades at his hostages.
Younadem Kana, a Christian member of the Iraqi parliament, condemned the rescue operation as “hasty” and “not professional.”
But U.S. and Iraqi officials said they had to act because they heard gunshots from inside the church and knew the militants were shooting hostages.
It was not possible to confirm or contradict this account from the accounts of survivors. One witness said there was sporadic gunfire during the siege.
Iraqi special forces stormed the church “to prevent the further loss of innocent lives,” said Lt. Col. Terry L. Conder, a spokesman for U.S. special forces. He said the Iraqi commando teams rescued 70 hostages.
Authorities worked through the night to remove the bodies. All that was left of the Jeep outside was a pile of mangled metal.
The 58 people who died included 12 policemen and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. Forty-one Christians inside the church also died, including two priests.
Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack — some of whom were not Iraqi.
A cryptically worded statement posted late Sunday on a militant website allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq appeared to claim responsibility for the attack.
The group, which is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, said it would “exterminate Iraqi Christians” if Muslim women in Egypt were not freed.
It specifically mentioned two women who extremists maintain have converted to Islam and are being held against their will in Egypt.
Even for a nation used to daily violence after years of war, Sunday’s church killings at the hands of Islamic militants shocked Iraqis and forced Christians around the world to take notice.
Grieving and afraid, Iraqi Christians said Monday they may now join what Catholic officials estimate is more than 1 million fellow worshippers who have been driven out of the country by Islamic militants since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“It was a massacre in there,” said Raed Hadi, whose cousin was killed in the attack. “We Christians don’t have enough protection. … What shall I do now? Leave and ask for asylum?”
In an interview, Iraq’s top Catholic prelate, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, encouraged the country’s remaining 1.5 million Christians to stay.
“We have never seen anything like it, militants attacking God’s house with worshippers praying for peace,” Delly said.
The number of Arab Christians has plummeted across the Mideast in recent years as many seek to move to the West. The exodus has been particularly stark in Iraq, where Christians historically made up a large portion of the country’s middle class, including key jobs as doctors, engineers, intellectuals and civil servants.
The sorrow that swept Iraq on Monday was felt far beyond its Christian community. Many Muslims also denounced the killings as senseless.
“These people do not value human life and have no respect for any religion,” Baghdad’s governor, Salah Abdul-Razzaq, said after visiting the church. “They say they are Muslims, but they killed here in cold blood.”
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston contributed to this report.