x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Christians in the Middle East celebrate Easter

Despite some security concerns, Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians through the Holy Land and broader Middle East flock to churches to celebrate Easter Sunday.

Nuns walk during the Sunday Easter mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Christ, in Jerusalem's Old City.
Nuns walk during the Sunday Easter mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Christ, in Jerusalem's Old City.

JERUSALEM // Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians through the Holy Land and broader Middle East flocked to churches to celebrate Easter Sunday, praying, singing and rejoicing.

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, about 200 worshippers attended an Easter mass held behind concrete blast walls and a tight security cordon. Militants have in the past attacked Baghdad churches.

"We pray for love and peace to spread through the world," said worshipper Fatin Yousef, 49. "We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq."

The pope made a plea for peace in his first Easter Sunday message to the world, decrying conflicts in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula after celebrating mass along with more than 250,000 people in St Peter's Square.

Francis shared in his flock's exuberance as they celebrated Christianity's core belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead following crucifixion. After mass, he stepped aboard an open-topped white popemobile for a cheerful spin through the joyous crowd, kissing babies and patting children on the head.

As popes before him have, he urged Israelis and Palestinians, who "struggle to find the road of agreement" to find the courage to resume peace talks and end a conflict that "has lasted all too long." And, in reflecting on the two-year-old Syrian crisis, Francis asked, "How much suffering must there still be before a political solution" can be found?

In Jerusalem, Catholics worshipped in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the hill where tradition holds Jesus Christ was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected. The cavernous, maze-like 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's tomb. Many foreign visitors were among the worshippers.

"It's very special," said Arthur Stanton, 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 leading up to Easter 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's burial. Another service was held at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus's traditional birthplace.

While Catholics and Protestants, who follow the new, Gregorian calendar, celebrated Easter yesterday, Orthodox Christians, who follow the old, Julian calendar, will mark it on May 5.

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 due to emigration as they leave for 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.

The situation for some Middle East Christians is in flux.

In Syria, Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the country's 23 million people, have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the two-year civil war. While outraged by the regime of Bashar Al Assad's brutal efforts to quash the opposition, they are equally frightened by the Islamist rhetoric of many rebels and their heavy reliance on extremist fighters.

Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 85 million people. Human rights groups say the police under former authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak rarely took steps to prevent flare-ups of violence against Christians, a situation that persisted since he was overthrown in 2011. The rise of Islamists in Egypt has emboldened extremists to target churches and Coptic property, leading to a spike in attacks and sometimes unprecedented steps such as the evacuation of entire Christian populations from villages.

In Libya, most Christians are Egyptian labourers. Tensions rose last month after assailants torched a church in the eastern city of Benghazi and militias arrested about 100 Christians, mostly Egyptian, accusing them of proselytising.

In Iraq, since the 2003 US-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.

There are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians 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.

About 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.

Ms Yousef, the worshipper in Baghdad, said lingering fear pushed her to send her son to live with relatives in Arizona last year. She is arranging for her other daughter and son to emigrate.

"There's still fear here, and there's no stability in this country," she said.