Iraq Christians mark Easter, pray for papal visit

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After years of flight from violence-wracked Iraq to more stable countries, Baghdad’s dwindling Christian community marked Easter Sunday by praying for a visit from the new pope.

Worshippers attended services at 28 churches across the Iraqi capital, often under heavy security that meant they were frisked before entering while soldiers and police stood guard outside.

“It would be so important for us if he came,” said Acil Aysar, a 17-year-old attending mass at the Virgin Mary church in Baghdad's central Karrada neighborhood.

“Our pope is simple and good,” added 70-year-old Mowafaq Akrawi, who placed a photograph of Pope Francis behind the Virgin Mary that greets visitors at the Chaldean church.

Though a visit seems unlikely -- Iraq remains very violent, and persistent rumors of impending papal visits have been repeatedly denied in previous years -- the newly enthroned Chaldean patriarch of Iraq, Archbishop Louis Sako, said this month that Pope Francis had expressed an interest in such a trip.

The Chaldean church, which has 700,000 followers worldwide and uses Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ spoke, is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

But along with other Iraqi Christian churches, it suffered persecution, forced flight and killings in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The bloodiest single attack on the community came on October 31, 2010, when Islamist militants killed 44 worshippers and two priests in Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church.

And although violence is markedly lower than during the worst of Iraq’s sectarian war, attacks are still common, with 263 people killed in March, according to an AFP tally.

“With the violence, I do not think (the Pope will visit)” said Aysar, clad in a blue silk dress. “Even for us, it is dangerous.”

She said her mother had been wounded in the leg three years ago by shrapnel.

Estimates of the number of Christians living in Iraq before 2003 vary from more than one million to around 1.5 million. But now they are estimated at fewer than 500,000.

The dramatic decline in their numbers is visible on the ground. Hind Kamal, a young mother, noted that “during Saddam’s time, we could not even get into the church because there were so many people.”

“Now, because it is Easter, the church is full. But normally there are usually no more than 100 people.”

As they packed into the tiny church in Baghdad, Pope Francis was leading his first Easter Sunday celebrations in Vatican City, in front of tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square.

“We do not have fear,” said Louis Shabi, a priest at the Virgin Mary church. “We have God.”

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