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Iraq's Christians face hardship, but peaceful Easter also highlights promise

War and persecution by newly empowered Islamist forces drove Iraq's Christians away, halving the population of the once-thriving community. But a new Christian leader vows to rebuild.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / March 31, 2013

A worshiper reaches to touch a crucifix during Easter mass at Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in Baghdad, Sunday. The Chaldean Church is an Eastern Rite church affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

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Baghdad

Iraqi Christians celebrated a largely peaceful Easter under heavy security as a newly elected Roman Catholic leader pledged to try to stop an exodus from the Middle East and rebuild the battered church community.

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Soldiers and federal policemen in armored vehicles were posted outside churches and security patrols were increased in Christian areas. Because of Baghdad’s fragile security, at many churches the main Easter service traditionally ending at dawn Sunday morning was held Saturday night.

Iraq’s Christian population, which was believed to have topped 1 million before the war, dropped to half that as Christians fled attacks on their neighborhoods and churches. Many of them have resettled in the west. Tens of thousands of Christians who went to neighboring Syria for safety or to apply for refugee status are just now beginning to return as fighting rages in that country.

On Sunday morning in Baghdad, church bells rang out as families with children dressed in new Easter clothing greeted each other on the steps in the spring sunshine. The post-Saddam Iraqi government has continued a decades-long tradition of granting Christian government workers a two-day holiday for Easter.

At the main Chaldean Catholic mass late last night, the new Chaldean patriarch, dressed in a red cape and gold-embroidered, stone-encrusted headdress celebrated Easter with a few hundred parishioners in a mass carried live on state television. 

Louis Raphael Sako was elected last month by a conference of bishops in Rome to head the Chaldean Catholic church, the largest of the Christian denominations in Iraq and Syria. The patriarch, whose official title is Patriarch of Babylon, is the most senior religious official of the church. It traces its roots back to Jesus's apostle St. Thomas,  who preached the gospel as he traveled through Iraq and Syria on his way to India.

Mr. Sako, who met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week to urge him to meet with political opponents, called in his sermon yesterday for Iraqis to unite to help build prosperity and stability.

In an interview this week, Sako made clear that, after what he described as several years of stagnation, the church would focus on making it safe enough for Christians to remain in Iraq and on strengthening ties with the Muslim community.

“We must stay. This is our history. This is our patrimony. When we leave everything will leave with us,” says Sako. “Other Iraqis are also persecuted, not only Christians, so there is a solidarity among us.… They have to stay to struggle with the others.”

Christian exodus

More than 1,000 Christians have been killed in the past 10 years and 60 churches have been attacked since Saddam Hussein was toppled, according to Sako. Although that is only a fraction of the number of Muslim victims, it is a much larger percentage of the overall community.

In the worst of the attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers stormed Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic church during mass in 2010, killing 58 people, including priests. A group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.  The church has reopened but is now hidden behind high concrete walls, guarded by soldiers, and closed to all but regular parishioners.

That attack and fragile security in Baghdad, Mosul, and other centers with large Christian communities, sparked a new exodus. 

A lack of priests has left only 18 Chaldean parishes, down from 30. In some areas where large numbers of Christians have been displaced and there are no priests, mass is held only once a month instead of daily or weekly.

The Chaldean population in Syria doubled to about 30,000 as Iraqi Christians fled there when it was safer. Some are now beginning to come back as their country of refuge falls apart.

Sako says emigration from Iraq mirrors the movement of Christians from other countries, where the Arab Spring has toppled dictators, but also removed much of the protection for Middle East Christians. 

“They are scared – all Christians, not only Chaldeans,” says Sako. “The Arab Spring is not a spring. It has changed even in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Algeria, in Libya. Now the Islamists have the power – the authority.”

“People are afraid of a kind of Islamic state as it was in the 7th century where Christians would be considered a second-class citizen.... We want to keep [Iraq's Christians] – to convince them that they can stay here and to live a good life,” he says. 

Still 'more freedom' here

While some are still trying to leave Iraq, many of those who stayed form a tight-knit community, remembering the diverse, more tolerant country that existed before the war and they are determined not to leave it.

“I will never leave Iraq. We have more freedom here than any other country in the region,” says a retired academic attending mass at St. Joseph’s last night. However, the woman said she did not want her name used because she lives in Mosul, the site of many of the attacks on priests and parishioners. Her sister and brother-in-law were wounded in the attack at Our Lady of Salvation and are still undergoing medical treatment in France.

At the Easter ceremony at St. Joseph’s, a female parishioner delivered the reading from the gospel while altar girls joined boys in the procession. Young women in tight jeans with long, flowing hair stood next to older women in black with lace scarves on their heads.  

Sako – who has studied Islam and speaks French, English, Italian, and German in addition to Arabic and the Aramaic spoken by most Chaldeans – was known for building strong ties with Muslim religious and political officials when he was Archbishop of Kirkuk before being elected patriarch. 

Kirkuk, in the middle of Iraq’s northern oil fields, is disputed territory, claimed by the central government, as well as by Kurds and Turkmen.

He says Christians have been swept into the wider struggle for power in Iraq, which includes sectarian violence as well as conflict between the Kurdish and central governments.

“Shiites, Sunnis, Christians are also a victim of this conflict – we don’t understand why they are attacking Christians because we don’t have any political ambition,” he says. “We don’t want to set up a Christian regime in Iraq but there is a struggle between Shiite and Sunni – and between the Kurds. The future is not known.” 

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