- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq’s embattled Christians took advantage of improved security and gathered Sunday to celebrate Easter, even as roadside bombings killed a U.S. soldier and wounded four other Americans in separate attacks north of Baghdad.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the country since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the rise of Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq. Those who remained live in fear of kidnapping and assassination.

But with better security in Baghdad and many other cities, Christians turned out for Easter services Sunday, and priests offered prayers for an end to the violence.

“God protect us and rid our country of disputes and quarrels, let it be free of hatred and hostilities,” Cardinal Emmanuel II Delly said during services in Baghdad’s Mansour district, which were broadcast on state television.

About 500 Christians attended services at the Virgin Mary Church in the southern city of Basra, where Shiite militiamen ruled the streets until an Iraqi government offensive last year.

It was believed to be the largest attendance at the Basra church since 2003.

In the northern city of Mosul, where Sunni insurgents remain active, most Christians avoided public places such as parks and restaurants, preferring to celebrate the holiday at home.

Last year, thousands of Christians fled Mosul after a series of assassinations of Christians. Many of them sought refugee in mostly Christian villages outside the city, where people spent the afternoon in parks, restaurants and community social clubs.

George Matti, 65, from Mosul’s eastern Zuhor neighborhood, attended Mass at the local church and then hurried home to his wife and five sons.

“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, who urged authorities to fulfill their promise to secure the city, 225 miles (360 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

American troops also attended sunrise services at U.S. bases across the country. About 100 soldiers sang hymns and listened to a military band at services at Camp Liberty on the western edge of Baghdad.

Christians made up about 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people when the war began in 2003. The exact number of Christians remaining in Iraq is unclear but estimates put the figure at several hundred thousand.

Despite the improvement in security, attacks continue.

An American soldier was fatally injured Sunday in a roadside bombing in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. No further details were released. It was the sixth U.S. combat death since Friday, when five American soldiers were killed by a suicide truck bomber in Mosul.

Also Sunday, a U.S. Army Stryker vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Taji, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baghdad, wounding four U.S. soldiers, the U.S. military said.

Nine Iraqis, including two women and a teenage boy, were wounded in a roadside bombing about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Baghdad, police said.

Five Iraqi soldiers were accidentally injured during a controlled explosion at an ammunition dump in east Baghdad, police said.

All the Iraqi spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release information to media.

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