By ELENA BECATOROS â€“ 16 hours ago
BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Thousands of Iraqi Christians made their way to church through checkpoints and streets lined with blast walls, many drawing hope from a lull in violence to celebrate Christmas Mass in numbers unthinkable a year ago.
Death is never far in Iraq â€” two separate suicide bombings north of Baghdad killed at least 35 people and wounded scores more. But the number of attacks has fallen dramatically in the past few months â€” the U.S. military says by 60 percent since June.
“We did not celebrate last year, but this year we have security and we feel better,” said Rasha Ghaban, one of many women at the small Church of the Holy Family in Karradah, a mainly Shiite district in downtown Baghdad where many Christians live. “We hope our future will be better, God willing.”
Families streamed into the church’s courtyard, wrapped in heavy winter jackets to protect them from the early morning chill. Young children with neatly combed hair held their parents’ hands, and women stopped by the front door to pick through a basket of small lacy headscarves, placing them over their hair before walking in.
The pews were almost full â€” women toward the back and on the right side of the church, the men on the left â€” and still more people streamed in. Outside, police armed with automatic rifles manned a checkpoint at the corner of the narrow street, searching every passing car for possible bombs.
Christians have often been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists in Iraq, forcing tens of thousands to flee. Many of those who stayed were isolated in neighborhoods protected by barricades and checkpoints. Less than 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people are Christians â€” the majority Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics.
A coordinated bombing campaign in 2004 targeted churches in the Iraqi capital, and anti-Christian violence also flared last September after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be against Islam.
But this year, with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha coming just before Christmas, Iraq has been living through some of the most peaceful moments since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Catholic Church and Iraq’s first cardinal, celebrated Mass before about 2,000 people in the Mar Eliya Church the eastern New Baghdad neighborhood of the capital.
“Iraq is a bouquet of flowers of different colors, each color represents a religion or ethnicity but all of them have the same scent,” the 80-year-old Delly told the congregation.
Muslim clerics â€” both Sunni and Shiite â€” also attended the service in a sign of unity.
“May Iraq be safe every year, and may our Christian brothers be safe every year,” Shiite cleric Hadi al-Jazail told AP Television News outside the church. “We came to celebrate with them and to reassure them.”
William Jalal, a 39-year old father of three attending Mass at Mar Eliya, said this Christmas was clearly different.
“We didn’t celebrate like this in the past two years as we were holding limited celebrations for relatives in an atmosphere filled with fear,” said Jalal, a cook in one of Baghdad’s social clubs. “Now we feel better as we see all these security forces in the streets to protect us.”
Bombers still attack city markets, police or army patrols and stores, and the dead bodies of tortured kidnap victims turn up almost daily along river banks or dumped on the streets.
Venturing out in large numbers late at night in Baghdad is still unthinkable, so the capital’s Christians celebrated midnight Mass in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Eve.
Delly, speaking to The Associated Press at his guarded compound in western Baghdad on Christmas Eve, said fear still pervaded everyday life, despite the fall in violence.
“Everyone is still afraid to go out,” he said. “Even small animals are afraid of the danger.”
In northern Iraq’s much safer Kurdish autonomous region, worshipers headed to the town of Ain Kawa, near Irbil. Some 1,600 Arab Christian families from Baghdad and nearby regions have settled there, said the local mayor, Fahmi Sulafa.
“Here, I feel my soul is at rest,” said Matti Gordese, a 40-year-old father of four originally from Baghdad. “I can practise my religion without feeling that suddenly, a bomb will explode and kill you in God’s house.”