BAGHDAD, (AFP) – Iraq has arrested 12 militants suspected of helping take Christians hostage in a church siege that killed 44 worshippers and two priests last month, an interior ministry official said Saturday.
Police have arrested 12 members of the group responsible for the attack against the church,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, without specifying when they were detained.
Among those arrested were Huthaifa al-Batawi, the Baghdad chief of the Islamic State of Iraq, the Al-Qaeda front group which carried out the attack, and senior ISI leader Ammar al-Najadi.
Batawi replaced Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, who was arrested by Iraqi security forces on March 11.
Iraqi security forces have said that Rawi’s arrest provided crucial intelligence that helped lead to the killings in April of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the political leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Ayub al-Masri, the insurgent group’s self-styled “minister of war.”
The militants detained Saturday were captured in raids carried out in the upscale west Baghdad neighbourhood of Mansur and on Palestine street, in the capital’s east, the official said.
He added that authorities seized six tonnes of explosives and toxic gas in the properties raided, and claimed that the arrests had helped prevent several attacks, including ones targeting Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone, home to several foreign embassies and government buildings.
In all, 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel were killed during the October 31 seizure of the Baghdad cathedral and ensuing shootout when it was stormed by troops.
Around 60 others were wounded in the bloodbath, and the five militants who carried it out were also killed.
Al-Qaeda said it carried out the church attack to force the release of converts to Islam allegedly being detained by the Coptic Church in Egypt. Days afterwards it declared Christians everywhere “legitimate targets”.
Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003 but that number has since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of repeated attacks against their community and churches.
Christians in Baghdad have now dwindled to around 150,000, a third of their former population in the capital.
Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday spoke of his sense of solidarity towards Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community, while issuing an appeal for religious freedom worldwide.
“Religious communities in Italy are praying today, at the request of their bishops, for the Christians who are suffering from persecution and discrimination, notably in Iraq,” the pope said during his weekly Angelus prayer in St Peter’s square.