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ICC Note: Please continue to keep our Iraqi brothers and sisters in prayer. . .
Grief mars celebrations as Christians pray for loved ones lost in Iraqi exodus
Iraq/Islam (for the full story, go to the Times Online) Sorrow haunts the face of the Iraqi mother as she leads her two small sons into a heavily guarded Baghdad church for Christmas Mass. Making the sign of the Cross, Maida Moshy slots into an empty pew to listen to the service, held in the afternoon of Christmas Eve because midnight is deemed too dangerous.

“I feel sad when I remember what Christmas used to be like with my large family,” said Ms Moshy, with a sigh. Years of violence since the war prompted six of her ten siblings to leave Iraq or move to the safer Kurdish north, while four of her husband’s five brothers and his sister have also fled. “I want my relatives to return because I hate being alone at Christmas,” said Ms Moshy, 32. “Without them I feel like a Christmas tree with no decorations.”

Services that once drew thousands of worshippers to celebrate into the early hours of Christmas Day now struggle to attract enough people to fill half the pews, and barely last 60 minutes. A drop in the violence over the past six months has failed to boost attendance, with Christians saying that there are fewer people visiting the scattering of churches in Baghdad this Christmas than in 2006 because so many families have moved abroad, and the enduring fear of violence.

In Baghdad several churches remain closed after being bombed by Islamist extremists, while a heavy police presence outside those open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day eased the sense of nervousness only slightly. “I do not feel an improvement in the security,” said one priest, who, along with two others interviewed by The Times, did not want his name to be published for fear of reprisals. “When I see the church full of people, when I can go to visit members of my congregation at night and return safely to my house then I will say that the country is better.”

Speaking to The Timesafter the service, he urged Christians to come home. “I am asking all families in exile to come back to Iraq and work together with the other Iraqis as one for the prosperity of the country after the improvement in the security situation,” said the Cardinal, dressed in flowing cream robes and a red cap.

Extremists targeted Iraq’s minority Christians in the mayhem that flared after the 2003 war, which also claimed the lives of thousands of Muslims.

Many families were forced to leave their homes, and many who could afford it left the country altogether.

“The situation is dangerous for all Iraqis, and being Christian adds an extra threat,” said Philip Douglas, 52, a chef, who misses his two sons deeply at this time of year. He smuggled them to Canada before the war, suspecting that it would be dangerous to remain in Iraq. “Christmas used to be special and happy but now it is just another sad, depressing day,” said Mr Douglas, who was at a simple service yesterday at St Joseph’s Latin (Roman Catholic) Cathedral in Baghdad.