Thousands of Iraqi Christians flocked to churches in Baghdad on Tuesday to celebrate Christmas, taking advantage of a noticeable recent ebb in violence in the country.
Dressed in their best, men, women and children attended prayers at special Christmas Mass services in various churches in Baghdad.
A large number of devout Christians packed eastern Baghdad’s Church of Mar Yousuf, led by Father Saad Serob for Christmas mass, appealing for peace in Iraq, the neighboring war-torn Syria and Arab Spring countries.
“Definitely, we the Iraqis prayed for all Middle Eastern countries, and peace in particular. We prayed for God’s peace to prevail in the countries currently torn by armed conflict, such as Syria.
We also prayed for God’s peace to prevail among the Palestinians and the Israelis and for peace and security across all Arab countries,” Father Saad Serob told Reuters after the service.
Activists said more than 44,000 people have been killed in the 21 months since protests erupted against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.
The morning mass was the second of two such services planned by the church. The first was held on Monday evening.
A choir of male and female singers sang hymns between prayers and sermons.
Enjoying a relative lull in violence, Christians prayed for everlasting peace and security and for quick return of their loved ones who fled violence and attacks targeting their community in the years that followed the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003.
Umm Noor prayed quietly in front of a nativity scene to the Virgin Mary, asking for violence in the region to cease, having experienced it herself firsthand.
“God willing prosperity, security and stability would prevail in the coming years. Frankly speaking we cannot feel joy in our hearts when we come to the church because our relatives and our loved ones, among them my dearest daughter,” she said.
“I have two daughters and one of them has left with my grandson and son-in-law, therefore I can no longer feel joy in this feast,” Noor added.
Two years ago, some church leaders in Iraq told Christians not to celebrate Christmas except with prayers after lethal attacks and continuing threats by militants against the Iraqi Christian community.
One unnamed Christian said she was grateful many had managed to make it to this year’s service at the Church of Mar Yousuf.
“Thank God unlike previous years the church is packed this year and God willing it will be better. My wish, my special wish, is security, security and security for Iraq and definitely peace for the Arab world and the world as a whole,” she said.
Insurgent attacks have panicked Iraq’s minority Christian community. Thousands have fled to the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region or overseas.
In the worst attack, 52 people were killed when security forces stormed Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church in Baghdad after militants took hostages during Sunday mass on October 31, 2010. Iraqi authorities said they had arrested 12 suspected al Qaeda members in connection with the assault.
Iraq’s minority Christians population has shrunk to about 850,000 from about 1.5 million in recent years, according to church estimates. Iraq’s total population is estimated at about 30 million.