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Iraqi Christians express concern

Iraqi Catholic women hold hands while reciting a prayer, during the celebration of Easter mass, at Baghdad's Sacred Heart Catholic church.
Iraqi Catholic women hold hands while reciting a prayer, during the celebration of Easter mass, at Baghdad's Sacred Heart Catholic church.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Christian Iraqis in Baghdad celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday and while many expressed relief that the regime under Saddam Hussein has fallen, others fear religious persecution if Iraq becomes an Islamic state.

Chaldean Christians celebrated Mass at St. Joseph's Church in Baghdad Sunday, where the priest delivered both a prayer for peace and a reflection on the New Testament account of Jesus' resurrection.

Unlike sermons delivered at mosques across the country, Sunday's message was devoid of any politics.

Chaldean is a form of Aramaic, spoken at the time of Jesus. The Chaldeans converted to Christianity in the first century A.D., and since then, the Chaldean branch of Christianity has been in Iraq. It is part of the Roman Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul II.

Christians are a minority in Iraq, only about one percent of the population, or 250,000, according to Baghdad church officials.

One Christian said Sunday would be "the happiest Easter of all."

"We are celebrating Easter just as all Christians celebrate Easter all over the world," said Izzat, an Iraqi Christian. "This Easter will be remembered as the Easter that coincided with the end of the war and the end of all our problems."

But other Christians expressed concern over the possible breakup of Iraqi society. One woman, a mother of four, told CNN's Jim Clancy that under the former regime, religions enjoyed some protection but, because the U.S.-led war was opposed by the pope, it has created problems for the Christian community.

"It is a new case for us, especially in the case of wars," she said. "Before, we have our customs, our Christian customs, nobody (asked) us what we are doing or not. But now we feel more afraid, we are more afraid now."

For many, the question now is whether a surge in Islamic fundamentalism from Iraq's Shia Muslims could impose the veil on Christian women, shut down restaurants, ban singing, dancing and alcohol or lead to outright persecution of their faith.

Iraq's Shia Muslims are a majority but were repressed under Saddam's ruling Sunni government.

As the Christian community celebrated Easter, many Shiites Sunday began an annual pilgrimage from Baghdad to the holy cities Karbala and Najaf, which had been banned under Saddam's regime.

Video showed hordes of men and boys crowded in front of an imam -- many shirtless -- singing and chanting, clapping their hands, and beating their chests until they were visibly red.

Already, many in Iraq's Christian community have fled to Europe or the United States, but many others want to remain in their homeland.

As one man put it, without any political power, his future and those of other Iraqi Christians this Easter are, as they have always been, in the hands of God.

-- Correspondent Jim Clancy contributed to this report

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