Christians in Iraq prayed on Sunday for peace, fraternity and love during Easter mass ceremonies and processions, flocking to churches from the Plain of Nineveh in the north of the country to Baghdad.
“The first thing I hope is to see is peace all over the world, not only in Iraq,” Rania Youkhana told The National after attending the Mass at Virgin Mary’s Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad’s central Karrada neighbourhood.
“Second is to see Iraq’s old days are back again when peace and security prevailed. I pray to see Iraq even better than before,” said Ms Youkhana, 47, who attended the service with her daughter and son.
A large wooden cross was placed next to the altar, with a white cloth placed on it to represent purity and wholeness. A model Easter Cave, the site of Jesus’s resurrection as told in the Bible, was placed nearby along with a basket filled with eggs.
Before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Christians had lived in peace among the country’s Muslim majority and enjoyed protection from both the government and society.
But with the rise of extremism post-2003, the community had to endure targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom, forcing many to flee the country and leaving behind houses and businesses that had been taken illegally, mainly by gangs who forged property ownership papers.
In October 2010, Iraqi Christians suffered their worst attack in the conflict to date, when an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday night Mass, killing at least 58 people.
Four years later, thousands of Christians fled their ancestral home in Mosul and surrounding areas as ISIS militants advanced, confiscating their homes, burning churches and forcing them either to convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
Today, there is no solid data on the number of Christians in Iraq but the community’s leaders estimate that only about 300,000 remain from the 1.5 million before 2003.
“In spite of what we have suffered from all these years, the sense of joy is still there,” Ms Youkhana said as some women were ululating inside the church.
Unlike other Christians, she doesn’t want to leave Iraq.
“We want peace for the sake of our children and coming generations so that they can feel it and live in a land where it has prevailed,” she said.
“We don’t want them to leave this country when they grow up, we raise and teach them in order not to leave this country but to serve it and do something good for it.
“That’s because we are the original inhabitants of this country, we don’t want to leave it behind. We have our heritage, civilisation and churches, we don't want them to disappear.”
For Youssif Hana, Easter is a time when he catches up with friends.
“It’s a great blessing and joyful day for all of us,” Mr Hana, a fourth-grade student at a faculty of physical education, told The National.
Mr Hana, 22, joined his three friends who all live in different parts of Baghdad.
“We are planning to hang out in shopping malls, have lunch and attend a party organised by the church later tonight at Al Elwiyah club,” he said, referring to a popular social club in Baghdad.
“May God protect Iraq and its people and bring peace to them.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi sent his congratulatory remarks to the Christian community. He said he hoped it can “provide inspiration and strength to Mesopotamia”, referring to modern day Iraq.
“Iraq will remain the homeland bringing together all its citizens in love, peace and prosperity,” Mr Al Kadhimi said in a statement.