Iraqi Christians marked a restrained Easter weekend as fear of attacks kept many from openly celebrating their most sacred day of the year and church officials urged them not to give up on the country.
At Our Lady of Salvation, where gunmen and suicide bombers killed at least 52 worshipers and guards in October, the church was tightly locked. Only the arch and cross on the church roof were visible behind the 10-foot high concrete walls that have turned most churches in Baghdad into miniature fortresses.
“Our churches have become like prisons,” says Monsignor Pious Casha, a senior religious official who arrived at Our Lady of Salvation moments after Iraqi special forces stormed the church during the siege last fall. “The barbed wire and concrete are new. Yes, they protect the churches, but they make the worshipers spiritually constrained.”
Iraqi police guarding Our Lady of Salvation said the doors would be opened only moments before the Saturday evening mass. “It’s more like a museum than a church,” said one of the police officers. He said they tried to keep out those who were simply curious or, he implied, there to gather intelligence.
Christians hit especially hard by violence
Like other minorities, Christians, because of their small numbers, have been disproportionately hit by violence. Many blame the United States for the turmoil that replaced the relative security they enjoyed even under Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime. Some of those who remain are a testament to resiliency.
Vivienne Matti was among the faithful trickling into St. Joseph’s Catholic church in the relatively affluent neighborhood of Mansour. Her husband and three children were killed four months after Saddam was toppled when American soldiers, thinking they were a threat, fired on their vehicle.
Matti’s youngest child, six years old, had been seated in her lap.
“I’ve seen death myself. I’m not afraid anymore,” she said.
Mass exodus of Christians from Iraq
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.
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.