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Iraqi Christians mark a restrained Easter

With violence still a threat, Iraqi Christians observed Easter from behind blast walls that have turned many churches into fortresses, or at home. At St. Joseph's in Baghdad, Monsignor Casha planned to urge parishioners to stay in Iraq and try to rebuild.

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Monsignor Casha, who officiates at St. Joseph's church, said it had been packed on Palm Sunday a week ago, with families doing a procession through the streets around the church.

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He said, however, that of the 1,300 families who had been in his parish in 2003, only 500 remained, with a few more leaving every week, most of them to Turkey.

“It is a disease of emigration,” he says. With the traditional escape routes closing as more countries in the Middle East are engulfed by unrest, Turkey has become the default route for Christians fleeing Iraq.

Of more than 1 million Christians in Iraq before 2003, there are believed to be only about 650,000 left. The exodus has raised doubts about the future of Christianity in the region where it first took root.

Casha said his Easter Sunday sermon would urge parishioners to remain in Iraq.

“Let’s stay here and try to build our country – everything old is finished,” he said.

He said there had been no recent attacks specifically targeting Christians after a wave of them claimed by Al Qaeda early this year. But there continued to be threats, he said, pulling out of his desk drawer bullets wrapped in black tape that had been placed on the doorstep of a Christian family recently as a warning.

“I think they wanted the house,” he said.

'I ask you to be patient'

In Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul, the site of biblical Ninevah and the burial place of the prophet Jonah, many Christians were watching mass on television rather than risking public celebrations.

Iraq’s state-run television broadcast evening mass live from the half-filled Virgin Mary church in Karrada.

“I ask you to be patient because the coming days will not be easy,” Cardinal Emmanuel Delly, the patriarch of Babylon, told the small congregation.

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