In hard times, many Iraqis nervous, hopeful at Easter

Altar boys at Sacred Heart Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad struggle to pay attention during Easter services. Among the remaining Christians in Iraq, feelings are mixed about the war.
Altar boys at Sacred Heart Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad struggle to pay attention during Easter services. Among the remaining Christians in Iraq, feelings are mixed about the war. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby)
BAGHDAD -- They filled every seat, the 450 men, women and children who overflowed the wooden pews yesterday at Sacred Heart Church, and they celebrated Easter by expressing hope that the war in their country might lead to something better for them and Iraq.

"We hope this Easter is the beginning of a new life," said Silva Sami, 22, a civil engineering student attending services at the Chaldean Catholic church. "This Easter, we pray to be a new beginning of Iraq.

"There's a lot of damage and dead people," she said, "but we know the bombs are not after us."

Not everyone was as optimistic after the two-hour service, one marked by the fidgeting of a dozen restless altar boys wearing red and white. A large part of the congregation remained gloomily focused on the difficult present rather than on the unknowable future.

'Not safe'

People know they still lack electricity and that their telephones do not work. For some people at Scared Heart, this was the first Easter in memory that they lacked money for new clothes or the opportunity to paint hardboiled eggs with their children.

"We came here to pray to save us from this war," said a worried-looking Sylvana Sarkeasian, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother. When it was suggested that the war ended days ago, she shook her head.

"The situation still is not safe," she said. "We are in our homes, but we can sometimes hear bullets. At least under Saddam it was safer than now."

For all the horrors President Saddam Hussein inflicted on this country, the remaining Christian community, accounting for about 3 percent of the population, was usually not targeted for abuse.

"We don't care about Saddam, whether he is in rule or not," 51-year-old Eskandar Elia said. "He put two police cars in front of the church" -- to protect the congregation, not to harass it, Elia said.

Sacred Heart is an inconspicuous church that sits in the middle of a block in the center of the city. It is topped by two modest cupolas. A cross made of yellow bricks juts from the facade.

Beyond the first set of wooden doors was a white altar adorned with candles and red flowers. Above it were two depictions of Jesus, one with arms extended and one on the cross. A statue of Mary stood in an alcove against a side wall. Fluorescent light bulbs glowed, powered by a generator.

The service was to begin precisely at 9 a.m., and men packed themselves into the front rows. The girls and women went to the back. Some wore their Sunday best, including one little boy in a blue suit. Many more wore jeans and casual clothes, and young women wore black pants and sparkly tops. Someone opened the windows in the vain hope for a breeze.

Before the service, an incessant knocking could be heard at the back of the church. A line of girls and women, wearing white veils pulled from a red bucket, were confessing sins to a priest.

The Rev. Basel Shimone's sermon hewed to the rituals of the church. Resplendent in cream-colored robe with red-orange fringe, he spoke in Assyrian and in Arabic. Not once did he mention the war or Hussein, except perhaps obliquely.

"This is the day that is not like days before or after," he said. "This is the great joy. Come to peace, come to peace with good people."

A letter he read from another priest, Imanuel Delley, seemed attuned to recent events. Delley wrote, "We hope for all of you and our country happy days and a good future."

'We're not happy'

After the service, the congregation filled the courtyard.

"This is the first Easter we didn't want to make colored eggs," lamented Juliet Eleya, 45. "It didn't feel right." She said her house remains without electricity. "We don't even know what to eat. Many restaurants are still closed. We have money at the banks, but they are closed or stolen."

Echoing a common sentiment, she blamed U.S. troops for allowing Iraqis to loot. "We were very happy at the beginning, but after the pillaging we're not happy," she said. Just then, Suaad Hermez spoke up in defense of the United States. "If Mr. Bush comes to govern," she said, "it will be better."

One parishioner had paid a higher price than most during the war. Her house near a military complex was bombed -- an accident, she believes. "My house is destroyed now," Sana Hikmat said.

Manuel Shamoon, a 52-year-old computer manager, said he wishes a peaceful way could have been found to topple Hussein. "Many, many bombs fell on Iraq. Many nights we didn't sleep.

"We hope a new government will be a good government, a democratic government. We want freedom to say anything we want," he said.

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