Iraq’s embattled Christians celebrate Easter

About 100 American troops also attended an Easter sunrise service.

BAGHDAD (AP) âÄî Iraq’s embattled Christians took advantage of improved security and gathered around the country to celebrate Easter Sunday, even as roadside bombings claimed the life of an American soldier. About 200 Iraqi Christians packed into the Virgin Mary Church in Baghdad’s Karradah district, once a predominantly Christian area but now largely Shiite, to attend Easter Mass. Across the city in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour district, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel II Delly delivered an Easter service broadcast on state television. “God protect us and rid our country of disputes and quarrels, let it be free of hatred and hostilities,” he said. At the U.S. military base Camp Liberty just outside the Iraqi capital, about 100 American troops also attended an Easter sunrise service, singing hymns and listening to a military band. In the southern city of Basra, where calm has long prevailed, about 500 Christians congregated for the service at the Virgin Mary Church, believed to be the largest attendance there since 2003. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq, Christians have frequently been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists, forcing tens of thousands to flee the country. Fewer than 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people are Christians, the majority of them Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, as well as a small number of Roman Catholics. The exact number of Christians left in Iraq is unclear but they are thought to number several hundred thousand. Meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier north of Baghdad on Sunday, the U.S. military said âÄî the sixth U.S. combat death in the last three days. A statement said only that the soldier was mortally wounded in a roadside bombing in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad. The attack reflected still-persistent dangers across Iraq, even as U.S. battle deaths have dropped sharply since 2007. Five U.S. soldiers were killed Friday in a suicide truck bombing in the northern city of Mosul, in the biggest loss of U.S. life in a single blast in more than a year. At least 4,272 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. Roadside bombs remain a top killer of U.S soldiers here, even though the majority of the time they are targeting Iraqi security forces and civilians. A second roadside bombing Sunday struck two cars carrying Iraqis in the Jisr Diyala area, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad. Nine people were wounded in the explosion, including two women and a teenage boy, police said. In eastern Baghdad, five Iraqi soldiers were accidentally wounded when an ammunition dump was blown up, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release the information. Iraqi troops stepped up security around churches in Mosul, but many Christians stayed home, avoiding public places and celebrating the holiday in private. George Matti, 65, from Mosul’s eastern al-Zuhor neighborhood, attended Mass at the local Chaldean church and then hurried home to his wife and five sons and their families. “We are asking Jesus to help our beloved Iraq and to help all Christians inside and outside Iraq to return to their homes,” said Matti, urging authorities to fulfill their promise to secure the city, 225 miles (360 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Persistent violence in Mosul has led some to suggest that the Iraqi government may ask U.S. forces to remain in the restive city, where al-Qaida in Iraq maintains a foothold. On Sunday, top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. Raymond Odierno said any decision pulling U.S. forces out of the cities by the June 30 deadline would ultimately lie with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.