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For Christians in Iraq, a calmer Easter, but worries still

BAGHDAD — Before 2003, Faiza Bunni would have left her house for church on Easter Sunday without covering her hair.

But those were the old days, when she didn't have to worry so much about standing out as a Christian.

"Easter this year is much better than in previous years," said Bunni, a retired school teacher who celebrated the holiday at the Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad's Karrada district. "But the situation is not as it used to be before 2003. It will be like the old situation when I can leave my house without a head scarf."

Bunni still remembers the days of the 1970s when she didn't have to worry about being targeted with violence. Back then, family members would crowd into her house in Baghdad's Doura neighborhood to celebrate Easter night.

That changed when the Americans invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein. Then came the internecine violence that wracked her country. When her house was hit by a rocket in 2006, her family fled to Syria. While they were away, what remained was looted. It cost millions of Iraqi dinars to rebuild it.

"Even the electrical switches were taken from the walls," Faiza said.

She admits this Easter is safer than last, and she hopes it will stay that way.

On Sunday, hundreds of Christians celebrated at Lady of Salvation, an Italian-designed church. The crowd spilled out into the church's yard. Young women carried baskets filled with colored eggs.

"The eggshell represents the grave while the white and yolk represent life, which is represented by Jesus when he came back to life after he was crucified," explained Yousif Awni, a 23-year-old worshipper.

Yousif also said this Easter is safer in Baghdad, but he doesn't know if it will last and he blames Iraq's politicians for that.

"There is no real unity between the politicians," he said. "They always talk about the national reconciliation. As people, we don't need this reconciliation because we don't fight each other. They are the ones who need it."

Iraqi security forces closed the roads to the church as a precaution, and worshippers were forced to walk in after leaving their cars elsewhere.

"This Easter is really better than the Easters of the last three years," said Rand Nabeel, a dental school student. "I can't say it's like the old days before the collapse of the former regime, but it's much better than the previous years."

Rand can't remember exactly how much she spent for her new Easter clothes but she is sure she paid more than $100.

Still, Rand misses loved ones who've fled Iraq.

"We are the only family who stayed in Iraq," she said. "My uncles, aunts and most of my friends are abroad."

(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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