© unknownThe Mar Bulos (Saint Paul's) church stands in Kirkuk. Mar Bulos, which opened on Friday in a poor Christian neighbourhood of the northern city, is Iraq's first new church since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraq's first new church under the US occupation opened its doors in the northern city of Kirkuk, the region's Chaldean archbishop told AFP.

The opening of Saint Paul's Church comes despite a deep decline in the number of Christians in Iraq; last All Hallows Eve, Al-Qaeda assaulted a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, killing 44 worshippers, two priests and seven Iraqi security officers. As a result, many Christians have fled the capital.

Before the 2003 US assault that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the number of Iraqi Christians went from an estimated one million to less than half that number; the remaining Christians now live in Kirkuk, Mosul and Iraq's Kurdistan region.

During St. Paul's opening ceremony, Louis Sako, Chaldean Archbishop of the northern province of Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk, said Christians and Muslims still need one another.

"We need each other," he said. "We cannot isolate ourselves and live alone. Isolation is a slow death, so we have hope for a joint life as Christians and Muslims, to have a righteous country, and a city full of security, stability and dignity."

The ceremony was also attended by several Arab and Kurdish officials.

In a symbolic gesture, Sheikh Ahmed Ameen, the Muslim Imam of Kirkuk, recited a prayer before Saint Paul's congregation, asking God for peace and security for the people of Kirkuk.

Hassan Toran, the chief of Kirkuk's provincial council, said the local government will support its Christians both financially and morally.

"Today is an example for forgiveness in this city," he said, "a message of peace to confirm the coexistance and fraternity of all the sects of Kirkuk."

An MP representing Iraq's Assyrian Christians, Emad Yelda, said the opening of the church was a message for Christians not to abandon Iraq; both the church and its surrounding housing complex were built on land donated by the Iraqi government and private donations.

"I left Baghdad last year due to the security situation and decided to live in Kirkuk because I have relatives and friends here," said Saad Issa Rowi. "Getting the land is like a gift from God, a gift to stay in Iraq, (to) die here and be buried here."