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Baghdad (AFP) Dec 24, 2012
Behind blast walls and with police nearby, 200 worshippers attended Christmas mass Monday at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church, which officially reopened this month after a massacre in 2010.
Sat in wooden pews with a two-metre (six-feet) high inflatable Santa Claus and a Christmas tree placed at the back, many cradled young children as a sermon was delivered with other youths playing in the church's courtyard.
Atop the church stood two Iraqi security forces members with rifles, while people who wanted to go inside were frisked at the entrance to the church compound, surrounded by four-metre (12-feet) tall blast walls and concertina wire.
"This is our first Christmas at this church since the attack," said 40-year-old Nasrat, one of the worshippers. "We are feeling very happy about the reopening of the church."
"Despite the painful attack, the church now looks even more beautiful than before."
Nasrat, who only gave his first name, was referring to an attack on October 31, 2010, when militants stormed the church and killed 44 worshippers, two priests, and seven security force personnel.
Photos of the two priests killed are now posted on either wing of the church, ribbons have been tied across the columns inside, and whereas the building's windows were shattered in the attack, they have since been replaced with stained glass and wood panelling.
Though church services still took place in the aftermath of the attack, it was officially reopened on December 14.
Three men convicted in connection with the massacre have since been sentenced to death.
"When the attack happened, all Iraqis felt deep pain, not just me, because an attack on a church is an act of a non-believer," said Ghassan Idmon Shamun, another worshipper. "Today I feel great coming to this church."
"Thankfully the situation is improving for us Iraqi Christians -- people are coming in, and attending the mass, and there is security present."
The 50-year-old added: "Before, I thought about leaving Iraq, but now as the situation has improved, I am not thinking about leaving anymore."
Iraq's Christian community is one of the oldest of its kind in the world. But along with other Iraqi Christians, they suffered persecution, forced flight and killings in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.
Before 2003 there were more than a million Christians living in Iraq. Now they number around 450,000.
According to the UN refugee agency, many thousands fled after the 2010 attack, and from 2003 to May 2012, some 900 Christians were killed, while 200 were kidnapped, tortured and ultimately released for exorbitant ransoms, according to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation in Iraq.
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