Christmas Eve services come early in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The Christmas Eve Mass for Baghdad's small and beleaguered Christian community started before dusk Wednesday instead of at the traditional midnight, a reflection of continued security concerns in the Iraqi capital.

About 50 people attended the Mar Yusif Chaldean Catholic Church's service, which started in the late afternoon - as on the previous five Christmas Eves - even though the overall number of attacks in the city has plummeted this year.

The worshippers quietly received communion and many lit candles at a nativity scene at the altar.

Most of Iraq's Christians traditionally attend services on Christmas Day rather than on the eve.

Christians have often been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists in Iraq, forcing tens of thousands to flee. Many who stayed were isolated in neighborhoods protected by barricades and checkpoints.

Fewer than 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people are Christians - the majority of them Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with a small number of Roman Catholics. The exact number of Christians left in Iraq is unclear but they are thought to number several hundred thousand.

A coordinated bombing campaign in 2004 targeted churches in the Iraqi capital, and anti-Christian violence also flared in September 2007 after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be against Islam.

In comments on state Al-Sharqiya TV, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly called on all Iraqis "to live together in a quiet, loving, brotherly and equal life" and "not to marginalize the Christians."


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