Thousands of Iraqi Christians picked their way through checkpoints and along dusty streets lined with concrete blast walls, packing churches in Baghdad on Tuesday for Christmas Day services.
"We did not celebrate last year, but this year we have security and we feel better," said Rasha Ghaban, one of many women at the small Church of the Holy Family in Karradah, a mainly Shiite district in downtown Baghdad where many Christians live. "We hope our future will be better, God willing."
A car bomb shattered the Christmas peace in the northern city of Beiji, killing at least 22 people, while a homicide bomber killed four people at a funeral northeast of Baghdad. But the number of attacks has fallen dramatically in the past few months — the U.S. military says by 60 percent since June — and the country's small Christian community took advantage of the lower violence to turn out in numbers unthinkable a year ago.
Families streamed into churches, wrapped in heavy winter jackets to protect them from the early morning chill.
The pews in the Church of the Holy Family were almost full — women toward the back and on the right side of the church, the men on the left — and still more people streamed in. Outside, police armed with automatic rifles manned a checkpoint at the corner of the narrow street, searching every passing car for possible bombs.
Christians have often been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists in Iraq, forcing tens of thousands to flee. Many of those who stayed were isolated in neighborhoods protected by barricades and checkpoints. Less than 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people are Christians — the majority of which are Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics.
A coordinated bombing campaign in 2004 targeted churches in the Iraqi capital, and anti-Christian violence also flared last September after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be against Islam.
But this year, with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha coming just before Christmas, Iraq has been living through some of the most peaceful moments since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Catholic Church and Iraq's first cardinal, celebrated Mass before about 2,000 people in the Mar Eliya Church the eastern New Baghdad neighborhood of the capital.
"Iraq is a bouquet of flowers of different colors, each color represents a religion or ethnicity but all of them have the same scent," the 80-year-old Delly told the congregation. "I'd like here to congratulate Muslims before Christians in their Eid and I wish peace and prosperity to all Iraqis in their country."
Muslim clerics — both Sunni and Shiite — also attended the service in a sign of unity.
"May Iraq be safe every year, and may our Christian brothers be safe every year," Shiite cleric Hadi al-Jazail told AP Television News outside the church. "We came to celebrate with them and to reassure them. ... This national gathering is beautiful against the sectarian fighting, and God willing from this lesson we'll all pray for peace."
William Jalal, a 39-year old father of three attending Mass at Mar Eliya, said this Christmas was clearly different.
"We didn't celebrate like this in the past two years as we were holding limited celebrations for relatives in an atmosphere filled with fear," said Jalal, a cook in one of Baghdad's social clubs. "Now we feel better as we see all these security forces in the streets to protect us."
Delly, speaking to The Associated Press at his guarded compound in western Baghdad on Christmas Eve, said fear still pervaded everyday life, despite the fall in violence.
"Everyone is still afraid to go out," he said. "Because of the car bombs etcetera, and other things. Even small animals are afraid of the danger."
Bombers still attack city markets, police or army patrols and stores, and the dead bodies of tortured kidnap victims turn up almost daily along river banks or dumped on the streets.
Venturing out in large numbers late at night in Baghdad is still unthinkable, so the capital's Christians celebrated midnight Mass in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Eve.
But in Irbil, a city in northern Iraq's much safer Kurdish autonomous region, thousands packed the Mar Yusef church at night, with people overflowing outside into the freezing mountain air.