BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's Catholic Christians flocked to churches to celebrate Easter Sunday, praying, singing and rejoicing in the resurrection of Christ behind high blast walls and tight security cordons.
It was the first Easter since the election of Pope Francis in Rome, and worshipers said they hoped their new spiritual leader would help strengthen their tiny community that has shrunk under the joint pressures of militant attacks and economic hardships.
At the St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad, some 200 worshipers stood and sat during parts of the Easter mass led by Father Saad Sirop.
"We pray for love and peace to spread through the world," said worshiper Fatin Yousef, 49. Like most worshippers she arrived have dressed immaculately for mass, her hair tumbling in salon-created curls, wearing a tidy black skirt, low-heeled pumps and a striped shirt. "We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq."
There are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians in Iraq, with most belonging to ancient eastern churches. There has been no census in Iraq for 16 years, making precise figures difficult to obtain.
An estimated two-thirds of Iraq's Christians are Catholics of the Chaldean church and the smaller Assyrian Catholic church. Worshipers of both churches chant in versions of ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, although the dialects would be mutually unintelligible.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi Christians have suffered repeated attacks by Islamic militants. Hundreds of thousands have left the country, with church officials estimating their communities have at least halved. The worst attack was at Baghdad's soaring Our Lady of Salvation church in October 2010. It killed more than 50 worshipers and wounded scores more.
More broadly, decades of immigration have shrunken the size of Christian communities throughout the Middle East, with most leaving for better opportunities and to join families abroad.
Other Christians in the region no longer feel comfortable among majority-Muslim communities that many believe have become more outwardly pious and politically Islamist over the decades.
They included Iraqi Christian worshiper Yousef's son, who moved to live with relatives in Arizona last year. Yousef said she was arranging for her other daughter and son to immigrate.
"There's still fear here, and there's no stability in this country," she said.
Iraqi officials have made efforts to secure churches since the violence of 2010.
High blast walls topped with netting and barbed wire surrounded the St. Joseph Church in Baghdad in the middle-class district of Karradeh. Blue-khaki clad Iraqi police guarded roads surrounding the church and checked papers of passers-by as worshipers filtered inside.
Four Iraqi Christian volunteers, two men and two women, stood at the church entrance to double-check who was coming in.
White-robed church volunteers marched down the church aisle behind Father Sirop, who chanted and waved thickly-scented incense that wafted through the building. The white-painted interior was adorned with three ornate chandeliers and a series of simple paintings illustrating the life of Christ.
Worshipers stood for lengthy passages of Sirop's mass, at one point bursting into applause when he told them, "Celebrate! You are Christians!"