, BAGHDAD, Nov 1- Thirty-seven Christians including two priests were killed when US and Iraqi forces stormed a Baghdad cathedral to free dozens of hostages being held by Al-Qaeda gunmen, witnesses and officials said Monday.
The bloodshed, in which seven security force members were also killed, came after the gunmen raided the Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Christian cathedral in Baghdad\’s Karrada district during evening mass on Sunday.
A witness said the attackers immediately shot dead a priest on entering while worshippers huddled in fear.
"They entered the church with their weapons, wearing military uniforms. They came into the prayer hall, and immediately killed the priest," said one of the freed hostages, an 18-year-old man who declined to give his name.
"We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions, and some people were hurt from falling windows, doors and debris."
Traces of Flesh, blood, bullet marks and shattered glass littered the cathedral, said an AFP journalist who went there Monday.
"It resembles a battlefield," he said.
The attack was claimed by an Al-Qaeda group.
The gunmen had attacked the cathedral after killing two guards at the nearby headquarters of the Baghdad stock exchange.
Among those killed in the carnage were five women, seven children and two priests, an interior ministry official and witnesses said. Ten women, eight children and a priest were among the wounded.
Five attackers were killed and eight arrested, the official said, adding there had been more than 100 worshippers at the cathedral in central Baghdad when the gunmen stormed in.
Witnesses said the hostages crowded into the main prayer hall when the gunbattles began with security forces.
The Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, Bishop Shlimoune Wardouni, said that two priests had been killed, and one shot in the kidney.
"It\’s a great sorrow, because this was an inhuman act. Even animals are not doing this to each other," Wardouni said.
Officials had said that at least one of the gunmen who raided the cathedral had blown himself up with a suicide belt as police made a first attempt to enter.
"We came here to help the police and army free the hostages, and we released them with the help of the Americans," a member of Iraq\’s anti-terrorist unit told AFP.
Wardouni said earlier that the gunmen were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt.
The SITE monitoring group said Monday that the Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of Al-Qaeda, had claimed the Baghdad attack, saying its fighters had captured the Christians and also gave the Coptic church in Egypt a 48-hour deadline to release women it said were being held captive by the Christians.
The group in a statement posted on jihadist websites said it was giving the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt 48 hours to release Muslim women "imprisoned in… the monasteries of disbelief and the churches of idolatry in Egypt."
"This was an operation that was planned a long time ago," said Yusef Mirkis, head of Iraq\’s Dominican church. "If you look at the weapons and explosives used, it could not have been planned in just a day or two," he said.
SITE said the threat comes amid calls by jihadists and Al-Qaeda\’s media arm for Muslims to take action against the Egyptian Coptic church over the alleged imprisonment of two women, both wives of Coptic priests.
It said jihadists believe one of the women had converted to Islam and was then imprisoned in a church, while the second had allegedly wanted to convert to Islam and suffered the same fate.
The Vatican, Italy and France were among the first to condemn the hostage-taking in Baghdad.
Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to 550,000 as members of the community have fled abroad, according to Christian leaders.
Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"What is clear now is that they (Christians) will all leave," said Pius Kasha, vicar of Iraq\’s Syriac Catholics.
Violence has abated in Iraq since its peak in 2006-2007, but deadly bombings, gunfights and kidnappings are still routine.
The US military officially ended combat operations in Iraq at the end of August, but around 50,000 troops still remain in the country.