Amnesty International has condemned as a war crime last Sunday’s attack on a Catholic church in Baghdad by an armed group, in which about 100 worshippers were taken hostage and more than 40 then killed as Iraqi security forces tried to free them.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an armed group linked to al-Qa’ida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack on a church in Baghdad’s Karrada district.
Following a three hour stand-off, Iraqi security forces stormed the church in an attempt to free the hostages, after those holding them reportedly threatened to kill them.
Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director, Malcolm Smart, said: “We utterly condemn this shameless targeting of civilians by an armed group in a place of worship."
“The attack seems to have been intended to cause maximum loss of life and to further inflame the sectarian divide that continues to wrack Iraq," he added.
“It is nothing less than a war crime to deliberately attack civilians in their place of worship, hold them hostage and kill them,” declared Smart.
The hostage-takers are said to have demanded the release of prisoners held in Iraq and Egypt, and to have used grenades and detonated suicide belts to kill hostages when the security forces sought to free them.
The hostage crisis was one of the worst such attacks by armed groups on Iraqi Christians since the start of the war on Iraq in 2003. Iraqi Christians have frequently been targeted for kidnapping and killing, and many churches have been subject to bomb attacks.
Iraq remains at a political impasse and a new government has yet to be formed, eight months on from the national elections in March. Armed groups are exploiting the power and security vacuum by intensifying their attacks on government, US military and civilian targets.
The plight of Iraqi civilians has been investigated in the April 2010 Amnesty International report Iraq: Civilians under fire.
Iraqi civilians continue to bear the brunt of the continuing sectarian conflict, with members of religious and ethnic minorities, women and girls, and political activists among those particularly targeted.