JERUSALEM – Catholics and Protestants through the Holy Land and broader Middle East flocked to churches to celebrate Easter Sunday, praying, singing and rejoicing.
It was the first Easter since the election of Pope Francis in Rome, and many Catholics said they hoped their new spiritual leader would help strengthen communities that often feel themselves cut off from their countries' Muslim-majority societies.
At the St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad, some 200 worshipers attended an Easter mass led by the Rev. Saad Sirop, held behind concrete blast walls and a tight security cordon. Militants have in the past attacked Baghdad churches.
"We pray for love and peace to spread through the world," said worshiper Fatin Yousef, 49, who arrived immaculately, dressed for the occasion: her hair tumbling in salon-created curls, wearing a tidy black skirt, low-heeled pumps and a striped shirt. "We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq."
In the holy city of Jerusalem, Catholics worshiped in the church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the hill where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected. The cavernous, maze-like structure is a series of different churches belong to often-rival sects crammed into different nooks and even on its roof.
Clergy in white and gold robes led the service held around the Edicule, the small chamber at the core of the church marking the site of Jesus' tomb. Many foreign visitors were among the worshippers.
"It's very special," said Arthur Stanton, a visitor from Australia. "It represents the reason why we were put on this planet, and the salvation that has come to us through Jesus."
Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects some 150,000 visitors during holy week and the Jewish festival of Passover, which coincide this year. A similar number arrived for the holidays last year, the ministry said. It is one of the busiest times of the year for the local tourism industry.
Protestants held Easter ceremonies outside Jerusalem's walled Old City at the Garden Tomb, a small, enclosed green area that some identify as the site of Jesus' burial. Another service was held at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace.
Catholics and Protestants, who follow the new, Gregorian calendar, celebrate Easter on Sunday. Orthodox Christians, who follow the old, Julian calendar, will mark it in May.
There are no precise numbers on how many Christians there are in the Middle East. Census figures that show the size of religious and ethnic groups are often 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.
In Iraq, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Christians have suffered repeated attacks by Islamic militants and hundreds of thousands have left the country, with church officials estimating their communities have at least halved. The worst attack was at Baghdad's soaring Our Lady of Salvation church in October 2010 that killed more than 50 worshipers and wounded scores more.
There are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians in Iraq, with most belonging to ancient eastern churches. There has been no census in Iraq for 16 years, making precise numbers difficult to get.
Some two-thirds of Iraq's Christians are Catholics of the Chaldean church and the smaller Assyrian Catholic church. Worshipers of both churches chant in dialects of ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.
Yousef, the worshipper in Baghdad, said lingering fear pushed her to send her son to live with relatives in Arizona last year. Yousef said she was arranging for her other daughter and son to immigrate.
"There's still fear here, and there's no stability in this country," she said.
Iraqi officials have made efforts to secure churches since the violence of 2010.
High blast walls topped with wire netting and barbed wire surrounded the St. Joseph Church in Baghdad in the middle-class district of Karradeh. Blue-khaki clad Iraqi police guarded roads surrounding the church and checked papers of passersby as worshipers filtered inside.
Four Iraqi Christian volunteers, two men and two women, stood at the church entrance, double-checking people entering.
White-robed church volunteers marched down the church aisle behind Father Sirop, who waved incense and chanted in the white-painted church adorned with three ornate chandeliers and a series of simple paintings illustrating the life of Christ.
Worshipers stood for lengthy passages of Sirop's mass, at one point bursting into applause when he told them, "Celebrate! You are Christians!"