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Easter in Baghdad: Iraqi Christians Celebrate After Saddam's Fall - 2003-04-20

Less than two weeks since the end of the war that ousted Saddam Hussein, thousands of Iraq's Shiite Muslims began a pilgrimage to the holy Islamic city of Karbala. And, Iraq's small Christian community celebrated a subdued Easter Sunday.

Several hundred Armenian Christians packed a simple stone church on Sunday to celebrate their Easter holiday. Many more listened from the front porch and the lawn beyond.

They wore their best clothes, but on their faces, there was a look of weariness. Most expressed joy and relief they could celebrate anything at all.

"Today, well it is the happiest day for us that we could celebrate this very religious day, after getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime," one man said. "That was our most difficult trouble and problem. Since 1979, or even 1968, we suffered too much hardship, everything from that regime. There was no democracy; there was no freedom, no just simple life."

That joy is tempered by concerns for the future.

Iraq's Christian community has dwindled over the years from more than one million to less than 700,000, about three percent of the population.

The Christians, like other minority groups, are worried about their status and their rights in a predominantly Muslim state.

Archbishop Avak Asadourian is Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Iraq. He says it has not been a problem in the past.

"We have always had very good relationships with the Muslim people. As a matter of fact, there was no such thing as Christian against Muslim. We were able to coexist," he said.

In their first taste of religious freedom, tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims, Iraq's majority population, began converging on the Islamic shrines of Karbala, in a pilgrimage banned by Saddam Hussein for more than two decades.

Some Iraqis have expressed concerns about the potential rivalry between the country's Sunni and Shiite Muslims for political power. Minority groups, like the Christians, now worry about the repercussions for them.

Archbishop Asadourian stresses the need for dialogue between Iraq's multiple religious and ethnic communities, sooner rather than later, as Iraq's political future is decided, in order to prevent friction.

"I think, all the Christian leaders, of the different Christian denominations, I think, we will be able to have some sort of a dialogue with the Muslim religious leaders," he said. "And, I think, as in the past, it had been done, but maybe now more. It is a very important thing to do very soon to try to bring normal relationships between the peoples."

For now, Iraqi Christians, like their fellow countrymen, have more urgent concerns, when will the electricity come back? When can they return to work? And when can they resume a normal life?