Iraqi Christians gather for Easter

21.jpg(AFP) – Hundreds of Iraqi Christians gathered in Baghdad on Sunday to celebrate Easter, an occasion marked with thoughts of thousands of the religion’s followers who fled after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Father Boutros Hadad, of the Church of Mary the Virgin in Baghdad’s Karrada district, told worshippers that Easter was a time to forgive past sins and an opportunity to look to the future.

“Our religion taught us forgiveness and to forget the past and to turn a new page,” he said.

“Jesus taught us forgiveness and this is the philosophy of the Christian religion – to forget those who wronged us. The situation in Iraq has improved and that is a cause for optimism.”

Christians make up around three percent of Iraq’s overwhelmingly Muslim 29 million population and are mostly concentrated in the relatively stable Kurdish autonomous north of the country.

According to Christian leaders, 250,000 of the 800,000 Christians who lived in Iraq before the invasion six years ago that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, have now left the country.

More than 200 Christians have been killed nationwide since 2003, with the violence intensifying last October, particularly in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest.

The Iraqi government was forced to send police reinforcements to Mosul in October after at least 12 Christians were killed. Several Christian houses were vandalised and burnt down and others were threatened, prompting 2,500 families to leave.

Security has improved dramatically in Iraq since 2007, but Easter comes amid a recent upturn in violence across the country that has seen dozens killed and hundreds injured in recent weeks.