Christians in Holy Land, Mideast celebrate Easter

Associated Press
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Raw: Francis Leads First Easter Mass As Pope

JERUSALEM (AP) — Catholics and Protestants flocked to churches to celebrate Easter on Sunday in the Holy Land and across the broader Middle East, praying, singing and rejoicing as a new pope pleaded for peace in the region.

Some Mideast Christian communities are in flux, while others feel isolated from their Muslim-majority societies. In places like Iraq, they have sometimes been the victims of bloody sectarian attacks.

At St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad, some 200 worshippers attended an Easter mass that the Rev. Saad Sirop led behind concrete blast walls and a tight security cordon. Churches have been under tighter security since a 2010 attack killed dozens.

"We pray for love and peace to spread through the world," said worshipper Fatin Yousef, 49, who arrived immaculately dressed for the holiday. She wore a black skirt, low-heeled pumps and a striped shirt and her hair tumbled in salon-created curls.

It was the first Easter since the election of Pope Francis and she and others expressed hope in their new spiritual leader. "We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq," she said.

The pope spoke of the Middle East in his first Easter message, pleading for Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations to "end a conflict that has lasted all too long."

He also called for peace in Iraq and in Syria. "How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?" Francis asked.

In Jerusalem, Catholics worshipped in the church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on a hill where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected. The cavernous, maze-like structure is home to different churches belonging to rival sects that are crammed into different nooks and even the roof.

Clergy in white and gold robes led the service held around the Edicule, the small chamber at the core of the church marking the site of Jesus' tomb. Many foreign visitors were among the worshippers.

"It's very special," said Arthur Stanton, a visitor from Australia. "It represents the reason why we were put on this planet, and the salvation that has come to us through Jesus."

Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects some 150,000 visitors during holy week and the Jewish festival of Passover, which coincide this year. It is one of the busiest times of the year for the local tourism industry.

Protestants held Easter ceremonies outside Jerusalem's walled Old City at the Garden Tomb, a small, enclosed green area that some identify as the site of Jesus' burial. Another service was held at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace.

Catholics and Protestants, who follow the new, Gregorian calendar, celebrate Easter on Sunday. Orthodox Christians, who follow the old, Julian calendar, will mark it in May.

There are no precise numbers on how many Christians there are in the Middle East. Census figures showing the size of religious and ethnic groups are hard to obtain.

Christian populations are thought to be shrinking or at least growing more slowly than their Muslim compatriots in much of the Middle East, largely due to emigration as they leave for better opportunities and to join families abroad. Some feel more uncomfortable amid growing Muslim majorities that they see as becoming more outwardly pious and politically Islamist over the decades.

The situation for some Mideast Christians is in flux.

In Syria, Christians, who make up some 10 percent of the country's 23 million people, have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the two-year civil war. While outraged by the regime of Bashar Assad's brutal efforts to quash the opposition, they are equally frightened by the Islamist rhetoric of many rebels and their heavy reliance on extremist fighters.

Christians make up some 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people. Human rights groups say the police under former authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak rarely took the needed steps to prevent flare-ups of violence against Christians, a situation that persisted since he was overthrown in 2011. The rise of Islamists in Egypt has emboldened extremists to target churches and Coptic property, leading to a spike in attacks and sometimes unprecedented steps like the evacuation of entire Christian populations from villages.

In Libya, most Christians are Egyptian laborers who are working in the oil-rich country. Tensions rose last month after assailants torched a church in the eastern city of Benghazi and militias arrested some 100 Christians, mostly Egyptian, accusing them of proselytizing.

In Iraq, Christians have suffered repeated attacks by Islamic militants since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and hundreds of thousands have left the country. Church officials estimate that the Christian communities have shrunk by at least half. The worst attack was at Baghdad's soaring Our Lady of Salvation church in October 2010 that killed more than 50 worshippers and wounded scores of others.

There currently are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians in Iraq, with most belonging to ancient eastern churches. Some two-thirds of Iraq's Christians are Catholics of the Chaldean church and the smaller Assyrian Catholic church. Members of both churches chant in dialects of ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

Yousef, the worshipper in Baghdad, said lingering fear pushed her to send her son 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 wire netting and barbed wire surrounded the St. Joseph Church in Baghdad's middle-class district of Karradeh. Four Iraqi Christian volunteers stood at the church entrance, double-checking the people entering. And blue-khaki clad Iraqi police guarded roads surrounding the church and checked papers of passers-by as worshippers filed inside.

White-robed church volunteers marched down the church aisle behind Father Sirop, who waved incense and chanted in the white-painted church adorned with three ornate chandeliers and a series of simple paintings illustrating the life of Christ.

Worshippers stood for lengthy passages of Sirop's mass, at one point bursting into applause when he told them, "Celebrate! You are Christians!"

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Hadid reported from Baghdad. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid and Goldenberg on twitter.com/tgoldenberg

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