Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community finds hope in Easter celebrations

Iraqi Christians prayed for peace, brotherhood and love in mass ceremonies and Easter processions on Sunday, flocking to churches from the Nineveh plain in the north of the country to Baghdad.

“The first thing I hope for is to see peace all over the world, not just in Iraq,” said Rania Youkhana. The National after attending mass at the Chaldean Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad’s central Karrada district.

“Second, to see the old days of Iraq return when peace and security prevailed. I pray to see Iraq even better than before,” said Ms. Youkhana, 47, who attended the service with her daughter and son.

A large wooden cross was placed next to the altar, with a white cloth placed over it to represent purity and integrity. A model of the Easter Grotto, the site of Jesus’ resurrection according to the Bible, was placed nearby along with a basket full of eggs.

Before the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, Christians lived in peace among the country’s Muslim majority and enjoyed the protection of government and society.

But with the rise of extremism after 2003, the community had to endure targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom, forcing many people to flee the country and leaving behind homes and businesses that had been taken illegally, mainly by gangs who had forged title deeds.

In October 2010, Iraqi Christians suffered their worst attack in the conflict to date, when an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Iraq stormed the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad during the mass of the Sunday evening, killing at least 58 people.

Four years later, thousands of Christians fled their ancestral home in and around Mosul as Islamic State militants advanced, confiscating their homes, burning churches and forcing them to either convert to Islam, or to pay a special tax.

Today, there is no hard data on the number of Christians in Iraq, but community leaders estimate that only about 300,000 remain of the 1.5 million before 2003.

“Despite what we have been through all these years, the feeling of joy is still there,” Ms Youkhana said as some women screamed inside the church.

Unlike other Christians, she does not want to leave Iraq.

“We want peace for the sake of our children and future generations so that they can feel it and live in a country where it has prevailed,” she said.

“We don’t want them to leave this country when they grow up, we raise and teach them not to leave this country but to serve it and do something good for it.

“It’s because we are the first inhabitants of this country, we don’t want to leave it behind. We have our heritage, our civilization and our churches, we don’t want them to disappear.

For Youssif Hana, Easter is a time when he finds his friends.

“It is a great blessing and a joyful day for all of us,” said Mr Hana, a fourth-year student in a physical education faculty. The National.

Mr. Hana, 22, joined his three friends who all live in different parts of Baghdad.

“We plan to hang out in malls, have lunch and attend a church party later tonight at the Al Elwiyah club,” he said, referring to a popular social club in Baghdad. .

“May God protect Iraq and its people and bring them peace.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi sent his congratulations to the Christian community. He said he hoped it could “provide inspiration and strength to Mesopotamia”, referring to Iraq today.

“Iraq will remain the homeland uniting all its citizens in love, peace and prosperity,” Al Kadhimi said in a statement.

Updated: April 17, 2022, 3:44 p.m.

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