Jerusalem: Catholics and Protestants flocked to churches to celebrate Easter today in the Holy Land and across the broader Middle East, praying, singing and rejoicing as a new pope pleaded for peace in the region.
At St Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad, some 200 worshippers attended an Easter mass that the Rev. Saad Sirop led behind concrete blast walls and a tight security cordon.
"We pray for love and peace to spread through the world," said worshipper Fatin Yousef, 49, who arrived immaculately dressed for the holiday. She wore a black skirt, low-heeled pumps and a striped shirt and her hair tumbled in salon-created curls.
It was the first Easter since the election of Pope Francis and she and others expressed hope in their new spiritual leader. "We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq," she said.
The pope spoke of the Middle East in his first Easter message, pleading for Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations to "end a conflict that has lasted all too long".
He also called for peace in Iraq and in Syria. "How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?" Francis asked.
In Jerusalem, Catholics worshipped in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on a hill where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected.
The cavernous, maze-like structure is home to different churches belonging to rival sects that are crammed into different nooks and even the roof.
There are no precise numbers on how many Christians there are in the Middle East. Census figures showing the size of religious and ethnic groups are hard to obtain.
Christian populations are thought to be shrinking or at least growing more slowly than their Muslim compatriots in much of the Middle East, largely due to emigration as they leave for better opportunities and to join families abroad.
Some feel more uncomfortable amid growing Muslim majorities that they see as becoming more outwardly pious and politically Islamist over the decades.