(Photo: AP Images / Hadi Mizban)
Christians in Iraq were able to celebrate Easter with less fear than the year before thanks in part to improved security.
As a precaution, Iraqi security forces closed roads to a number of churches, forcing parishioners to leave their cars far enough away to discourage would-be bombers. Iraqi policemen also stood guard outside Christian churches in some neighborhoods on Sunday and even the day before.
Still, many Christians chose to mark the major Christian holiday in their homes, well aware that attacks were continuing despite the notable improvement of security since 2007. This was true particularly in the northern city of Mosul, where Sunni insurgents remain very active.
In other cities, however, Christians gathered in record numbers to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, many of which had returned to their communities not long ago after fleeing the country years earlier.
In the southern city of Basra, about 500 Christians attended services at the Virgin Mary Church, marking the church's largest attendance since 2003, according to The Associated Press.
In Baghdad, Saints Peter and Paul Church, one of the city's biggest churches, held Easter services for the first time since it was forced to close in 2007 due to violence.
The Christian population in Iraq is now about half of what it was before U.S.-led forces invaded the country and toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, leading to the rise of Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda in Iraq.
Since 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled to neighboring countries and some 750 Christians have been killed in Iraq, according to Archbishop Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk.
But more Christians have been returning in recent months, including as many as 800 Christian families who have returned to southern Baghdad's Dora neighborhood in the past six months, according to Col. Samir al-Timimi, the Iraqi police commander for the district.
Since 2007, calls for Iraqi Christians to return have increased, many of which note their role in rebuilding the violence-riddled country.
In February, some 12 representatives of Iraqi churches called on the country's Christians "to stay in their homeland and participate actively in its rebuilding and development."
Iraqi Christians have a role "in building educational and social institutions that contribute to national reconciliation, peace building and stability," they said during a two-day meeting organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC).
"Christians have belonged to Iraq since the nation's birth," and are "an essential part of Iraqi society ... deeply rooted in its history and civilization," the Iraqi church representatives added.
Still, many are wary of returning and some have started new lives in the United States, Europe, and nearby countries.
Last October, more than 15,000 Iraqi Christians were reportedly driven out of the northern city of Mosul after 13 local Iraqi Christians were killed within four weeks, including three within 24 hours.
And the murders of four Iraqi Christians earlier this month sparked fears of another possible exodus.
"The killing of four innocent people within the last two days has put a renewed fear in our hearts," Julian Taimoorazy, president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, reported to persecution watchdog International Christian Concern. "What is important is to keep these continuous atrocities in the media and on the policy makers' radars. What we need is a more safe and secure Iraq for all of Iraqi's especially for the Christians who have faced ethno-religious cleansing."
In his prayer this past Sunday, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, primate of the Chaldean Catholic Church, asked God to protect Iraq's Christian minority and to bring an end to the violence.
"God protect us and rid our country of disputes and quarrels, let it be free of hatred and hostilities," Delly said during services in Baghdad's Mansour district, which were broadcast on state television.
While Christians made up about 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people in 2003, estimates today put the figure at several hundred thousand.