Al Qaeda in Iraq Threatens Attacks on Christians

BAGHDAD -- Al Qaeda's front group in Iraq has threatened more attacks on Christians following a bloody siege at a Baghdad church that left 58 people dead, saying that the "killing sword will not be lifted" from their necks.

The Islamic State of Iraq's warning of further violence against Christians comes two days after the group's assault on a Catholic church in downtown Baghdad -- the deadliest attack ever recorded against Iraq's Christians, whose numbers have plummeted since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as the community has fled to other countries.

"We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood," the insurgent group said in a statement posted late Tuesday on militant websites.

The Islamic State of Iraq, which is an umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq and other allied Sunni insurgent factions, also said that its deadline for the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt to release Muslim women that the militant group claims are being held captive has expired.

As a result, "all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them," the group said. The statement did not specify any one location, raising the specter of violence against Christians across the region.

The release of the women in Egypt was one of the militants' demands during Sunday night's siege, along with the release of Al Qaeda-linked prisoners held in Iraq.

The Baghdad church siege horrified Iraq's Christian community, hundreds of whom gathered Tuesday for a memorial service in Baghdad. One of the officials read a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the crowd.

"For years the violence hasn't stopped hitting this country, and Christians are becoming the target of these cruel terrorist attacks," the letter read.

While Christians were the target Sunday night, Shiites bore the brunt of a string of 13 attacks on Tuesday that struck neighborhoods across the capital.

On Wednesday, the death toll in that violence climbed to 91 people, according to Iraqi police and hospital officials. No break down of the new death toll was immediately available.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Tuesday's attacks evoked painful memories of the bloody sectarian war Iraq's Sunni and Shiite militias fought in 2006 and 2007, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

They were designed to hit civilians at restaurants and cafes where many Iraqis were gathered to enjoy the warm evening. The violence demonstrated the insurgents' ability to carry out coordinated attacks from one side of Baghdad to the other despite a network of police and army checkpoints and blast walls crisscrossing the capital.