By Usama Redha and Kimi Yoshino, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
BAGHDAD — Outside Mar Eliya church, not much had changed since last Christmas: Concrete blocks still surround the building and guards check the IDs of those entering.
But inside, hundreds of Iraqi worshipers — Christians and Muslims — were crammed into the overflowing Chaldean Catholic church Tuesday, celebrating the holiday and the fact that they felt safe enough to venture out of their homes to attend Christmas Mass.
“Last year was the year of misery, desperation and sadness,” said Samar Jorge Gorges, 33. “But this year is better. So many people attend the Mass and you can see that their praying was joyful.”
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, the patriarch of Iraq’s ancient Chaldean Church who last month was elevated by Pope Benedict XVI to become Iraq’s first Roman Catholic cardinal, said Mass, appealing for peace and unity across the war-scarred country.
“Iraq is like a garden and its beauty is the variety of its flowers and scent,” Delly said during the service.
Among those attending were several Shiite Muslim sheiks, including Raad Tamimi, who said they had come “in solidarity with our Christian brothers . . . to plant the seed of love again in the new Iraq.” Tamimi, a tribal leader, was excited to shake the cardinal’s hand and asked that a photo be taken with his cellphone.
Delly has encouraged Iraq’s displaced Christians to return home to help rebuild the country. Although some have done so, he acknowledged that many are still afraid.
“Some people have started to come back, but they are still asking for stability and security,” he said. “When this has been spread, when peace and forgiveness will be established, then everyone will return.”
He said he was encouraged by a recent visit to the Dora neighborhood, where he attended the reopening of St. John the Baptist Church, which had been abandoned and looted.
“It was our brothers the Muslims that encouraged us to open the church . . . and helped us raise the Christ over the church again,” Delly said.
The south Baghdad neighborhood was once a vibrant mix of Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Christians. But most Shiites were driven out last year by violence. This year, Sunni militants gave the Christian population the choice of converting, paying a tax or leaving. Most chose to leave. But Delly said a few have started to return, encouraged by a downturn in violence.
Jameel Hamouda, 55, who attended the Christmas services, said four of his family members had left Iraq, but that he was hopeful they would return.
“This is the first time the Muslim figures like sheiks and Shiite clerics attended the Mass,” Hamouda said. “I feel happy and my soul filled with peace. God willing, there will be a union.”
On American military bases around Baghdad, troops celebrated Christmas with a cautious view.
“There’s a tremendous amount of progress on the ground,” said Army Brig. Gen. James Huggins, deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in charge of operations in southern Iraq. “There’s a lot of momentum. It’s just that we’ve got to take a few pockets and take it to the insurgents a bit more. . . . We’ve got a pretty tough mission ahead of us. We’re going to need 100%.”
Touring five camps Tuesday — ranging from large bases with several hundred soldiers to abandoned homes converted into small outposts — Huggins played the role of Santa Claus.
Instead of a sleigh, he hopped into and out of a Black Hawk helicopter. And instead of red knapsacks, his assistants toted camouflage backpacks filled with token gifts, such as small laser lights and international calling cards.
At each stop, he reminded soldiers to call home, gave them a pep talk — “It really is an investment in our future” — and thanked them “for everything you’re doing.”
Soldiers said they enjoyed better food than usual, including lobster tails, ham, turkey, prime rib and all the fixings.
At Camp Hammer south of Baghdad, some planned to play football. Others were more interested in watching the Lakers basketball game.
But what they really wanted was to go home. This Christmas with family missed put them one day closer to leaving, they said.
“This is the last push of our deployment,” said 1st Lt. Ruben Ramos, 27. “We’re looking forward to getting home and seeing our families.”