- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

BAGHDAD | 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 Qaeda in Iraq. Those who remain 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 III Delly said in Baghdad's Mansour district during services, which were broadcast on state television.

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

It was thought 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, of 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 Mr. Matti, who urged authorities to fulfill their promise to secure the city, 225 miles north of Baghdad.

U.S. 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.

A U.S. 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 U.S. soldiers were killed by a suicide truck bomber in Mosul.

The bodies of the five Americans arrived at a U.S. military facility in Dover, Del., on Sunday.

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