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 on Saturday. The arrests were the first since the October 31 attack, which drew widespread international condemnation, and included the capture of Al-Qaedas chief in Baghdad in raids in the capitals east and west. Police have arrested 12 members of the group responsible for the attack against the church, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity and without specifying when they were detained. Among those apprehended were Huthaifa al-Batawi, the Baghdad chief of the Islamic State of Iraq, the Al-Qaeda front group which carried out the attack, while senior ISI leader Ammar al-Najadi was killed. Batawi replaced Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, who was arrested by Iraqi security forces on March 11. Iraqi security forces have said Rawis 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 groups self-styled minister of war. The 12 militants were captured in raids carried out in the upscale west Baghdad neighbourhood of Mansur and on Palestine Street in the east of the city, the official said. He added that authorities seized six tonnes of explosives and toxic gas in the properties raided, and said the arrests had helped prevent several attacks, including ones targeting Baghdads heavily fortified Green Zone which is home to several 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 shoot-out when it was stormed by troops. Around 60 other people were wounded in the bloodbath, and the five militants who carried it out were also killed. Al-Qaeda said it launched the church attack to force the release of converts to Islam allegedly being detained by the Coptic Church in Egypt. Days later it declared Christians everywhere legitimate targets. Less than two weeks after the church attack, a string of bombings targeting Christian homes and shops in Baghdad killed six more people. Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003, but their number has since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of repeated attacks against their community and places of worship. The number of Christians in Baghdad has 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 Iraqs 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 Peters Square. Saturdays arrest came a day after Cairo-based satellite TV channel Al-Baghdadiya said it had shut its Iraq operations after its broadcasts were cut for airing the demands of the militants who launched the church attack.