Sunday, October 17, 2004

BAGHDAD (Agence France-Presse) — Hope was reborn from the ashes of a blackened Greek Catholic church where a family held a baptism yesterday afternoon, a day after five churches in the Iraqi capital were targeted in bomb attacks.

“Our church was demolished. Death entered here in its black garb,” said the Rev. Mansour al-Mukhallessi in the cavernous hole that remained after flames devoured the place of worship before dawn on Saturday.

“We came here to pray and not to make a political or religious statement. We are here to ask God’s forgiveness for those who destroy churches and places of worship,” said the elderly Belgian priest, who moved to Iraq 40 years ago.

“We will vanquish death and misery,” he said.

Fayza Jamil walked forward, carrying her baby in her arms in a white robe. She and her husband named the child Savio, short for savior, in praise of Jesus Christ.

One-month-old Savio was handed to the priest over a red plastic basin. The priest sprinkled water on the baby, the son of the church’s caretaker, Nabil Jamil.

The family had survived the fire in their quarters attached to the sanctuary. And they had returned to celebrate life in the rubble of the church that Mr. Jamil had guarded for the past five years.

Mr. Jamil had cleared the rubble, put the basin on a small table, with a sheet and some candles, and decorated the cracked marble altar with flowers.

A sole icon of the Virgin Mary had survived the fire. Mr. Nabil placed a painting of Christ washing the feet of his disciples to hide another icon disfigured by the fire.

“It is ridiculous. [The attackers] are trying to transform this into a religious war. We are here to put an end to that,” said Sgt. Rick Donahou, who came with a U.S. military team to assess the damage.

Despite the heavy damage, the church and its parishioners had rallied.

“After the attack, Father Mansour had come to check the damage, and he told me that he would hold a service on Sunday like always. I insisted on baptizing my son,” Mr. Jamil said.

About 50 people, still stunned, came and walked amid the ruins, their shoes coated in ash. They had put on their Sunday clothes, not willing to change anything despite the act of hatred directed against their community.

The priest sprinkled water on the baby’s head, and Savio’s cry rang through the burned-out chamber.

The congregation clapped and lined up to embrace the child and comfort the parents, with more than the ordinary congratulatory words for such an occasion. “Praise be to God, you are healthy and safe,” they said.

A piece of the church wall had fallen on the Jamil family’s home in the blast, which, like the other four attacks, caused material damage but no casualties.

But Mr. Jamil’s family didn’t want to think about the hardships ahead for them or the rest of mostly Muslim Iraq’s estimated 700,000 Christians.

“I wish you a full and happy life, with the best luck,” said Mrs. Jamil, squeezing her child tightly.

“We hope he grows up to serve in the church where he was baptized,” said Savio’s aunt, aware that many Christians are fleeing Iraq for fear of the rising religious extremism in the country.

Father Mansour concluded the Mass, pleading to God: “Save your people. Do not abandon us; we depend on you.”

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