- Associated Press - Sunday, March 31, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) —  Praying, singing and rejoicing, Catholics and Protestants throughout the Holy Land and broader Middle East flocked to churches to celebrate Easter Sunday.

It was the first Easter since the election of Pope Francis in Rome, and many Catholics said they hoped their new spiritual leader would help strengthen communities that often feel themselves cut off from their countries’ Muslim-majority societies.

At the St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad, some 200 worshippers attended an Easter Mass led by the Rev. Saad Sirop, held behind concrete blast walls and a tight security cordon. Militants haveattacked Baghdad churches in the past.

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“We pray for love and peace to spread through the world,” said worshipper Fatin Yousef, 49, who arrived immaculately dressed for the occasion: Her hair tumbling in salon-created curls, she wore a tidy black skirt, low-heeled pumps and a striped shirt. “We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq.”

In the holy city of Jerusalem, Catholics worshipped in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the hill where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected. The cavernous, mazelike structure is a series of different churches belong to often-rival sects crammed into different nooks and even on its 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 expected some 150,000 visitors during Holy Week and the Jewish festival of Passover, which coincide this year. A similar number arrived for the holidays last year, the ministry said. 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 newer 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 that show the size of religious and ethnic groups are often 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 because of emigration as they leave to seek 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.

In Iraq, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Christians have suffered repeated attacks by Islamic militants, and hundreds of thousands have left the country, with church officials estimating their communities have at least halved. 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 more.

An estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians are in Iraq, with most belonging to ancient Eastern churches. There has been no census in Iraq for 16 years, making precise numbers difficult to get.

Some two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians are Catholics of the Chaldean Church and the smaller Assyrian Catholic Church. Worshippers of both churches chant in dialects of ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

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