By Karim Hilmi, NBC News
BAGHDAD — Concrete blast walls and armed paramilitaries carrying AK-47 assault rifles still guard the street leading to Baghdad’s Virgin Mary Cathedral.
But despite the danger that comes with being a Christian in Iraq, Father Azeria Warda Benyameen refuses to accept any bodyguards.
“I believe the mighty God is the supreme protector and He gives life and He is the only one who takes it,” Benyameen says with a smile.
Benyameen, who is in his late fifties, is the church’s senior priest. He offers sermons and services in Aramaic, the ancient language that drew fresh interest when it was featured in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
Although he isn’t convinced Baghdad is secure he refuses allow the terror attack to drive him out of the capital’s Camp Sarah neighborhood.
“Security stability is not yet 100 percent achieved in Baghdad and government needs to exert more efforts to get rid of armed groups, murderers and sleeping terrorist cells,” Benyameen said.

Attack in 2006
During the sectarian violence in 2005 and 2006, many churches were targeted by suicide attackers and car bombs. As part of the Old Eastern Church in Iraq, Virgin Mary Cathedral was no exception.
In September 2006, a guard was killed, 10 civilians were hurt and the cathedral and nearby homes suffered “huge damage” after a car bombing.
However, since the implementation of Baghdad security crackdown in March 2007, the situation has improved with sectarian murders dramatically reduced and the number of suicide attacks which plagued the city also diminishing.
Benyameen believes these developments have convinced a small number of Christians, who had been displaced by violence, to return to their homes.
“Many Christians were forced to leave the country to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in hope to emigrating to their final destination in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe and many of them are now settled in these countries,” he said.
Benyameen said the church used to give lessons in the Chaldean language and the history and principles of Christianity to about 300 children every summer holiday. The number has now dropped to about 50 students each year.
“The church used to receive a congregation of 500 believers every Sunday and holy occasions but now only 50 persons attend such ceremonies,” Benyameen added. “This might give you a statistic concerning the drop in the number of Christians in Iraq