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Christians, Muslim Leaders in Iraq Attend Services for Pope John Paul II

As the world prepares for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, Christians around the world are holding church services in his memory. In Iraq, members of the Christian minority held a memorial Mass, which was attended by senior leaders of the Muslim community.

Nearly 1,000 mourners gathered under the late afternoon sun Thursday at St. Joseph's Chaldean church, home to some 2,000 families in Baghdad that follow this branch of the Catholic Church.

The mourners sang hymns, then listened as the Chaldean Bishop of Baghdad, Andreas Abouna, delivered the eulogy.

Bishop Andreas praised the late pontiff as a man of peace and an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

The Chaldean patriarch of Iraq, Immanuel Delli, noted that the pope several years ago planned to visit Iraq, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, as part of his pilgrimage to the Middle East. But he said the visit was canceled because of the international confrontation with then-president Saddam Hussein.

Patriarch Immanuel said the pope loved Iraq and Iraqis and he always prayed for us. Now, he said, we are praying for him.

Christians in Iraq number less than one million people, or five percent of the population. Historically, they have lived peacefully with the other religions.

However, their community has not been spared the fallout from the recent war that ousted Saddam Hussein. St. Joseph's Cathedral was one of five churches that were bombed six months ago by unknown attackers. Scores of security officers were on duty during Thursday's Mass.

The Mass was also attended by a half-dozen Muslim clerics representing Iraq's senior Muslim leadership. One of these, Saed Hadi Jazaari, said the imams came to offer condolences to their Christian brothers over the death of a great pope.

He said the pope, for Muslims, represented peace, peaceful dialogue between civilizations and between the religions.

Bishop Abouna said the presence of the Muslim clerics was evidence of ancient ties that go back to the era of the Prophet Mohammed.

"We have great and very wonderful relations with the Muslims and not only from now, from the past," said Bishop Abouna. "Christian history is very deep in Iraq and relations [with Muslims] are deep, same as the religion."

The ceremony ended with the celebration of communion and recitations from the ancient Chaldean liturgy.

Then as mourners filed out into the setting sun, the priests embraced their Muslim guests, exchanging blessings.