An Iraqi court has convicted three people and awarded them the death penalty for their role last year in a Church siege, which killed 68 worshippers, and underscored the uphill task faced by rulers of protecting religious minorities.

Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council, said on Tuesday that a fourth person has been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

The convicted men have one month to file an appeal.

In the deadly attack in Baghdad last October on the Our Lady of Salvation church, gunmen stormed the building and gunned down the priest and worshippers, before exploding their suicide vests.

Despite an outcry against attacks on Christians, the targeting of churches in Iraq has been a regular feature, since the U.S.  invasion of the country in 2003.

On Tuesday, at least 16 people were injured when a car bomb exploded outside a church in Kirkuk, Iraq's oil rich northern city, with a mixed religious and ethnic population.

Television pictures showed that the blast had blown out church windows, and had left the building showered with debris, resulting from the explosion.

Reuters quoted Torhan Abdulrahman, the city's deputy police chief as saying that car bombs, targeting two other churches were defused, before they could cause any damage.  

The attacks on Iraqi Christians have forced them to migrate abroad in significant numbers.

Iraq has an estimated Christian population of around 850,000, significantly down from the earlier estimates of 1.5 million, church sources say.

More In: International | News