Easter Prayers Focus On Iraq

Iraqi Catholic women hold hands while reciting a prayer, during the celebration of Easter mass, at Baghdad's Sacred Heart Catholic church, Iraq, Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003. Some of Iraq's minority Christians say they may face uncertain times if Islamic fundamentalists gain political power in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
President Bush is marking Easter Sunday by visiting two of the seven former prisoners of war who returned home to their families last night, and attending Easter services with soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas.

"It feels good to be home and let's keep praying for all those soldiers who are still fighting," former POW Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams told 1,500 cheering colleagues, friends and family members who gathered late Saturday night at Fort Hood.

"I say a special prayer each night for our fallen comrades, for the soldiers that didn't make it home, and the ones that are still over there. I want everyone to remember them in their prayers," added former POW Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr.

The seven POWs said they were kicked and beaten when captured and taunted by Iraqi interrogators, but added they were given medical treatment, regularly fed, and did not complain of torture.

Pope John Paul II, in his Easter Sunday message to the world, proclaimed "Peace in Iraq" and called for a strong role for the international community in the postwar rebuilding of Iraq – a step the United States has rejected. The pontiff also decried "forgotten" wars, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thousands of Shiite Muslims from Baghdad and elsewhere are marching toward two Iraqi holy cities on an annual religious pilgrimage that was discouraged for decades by Saddam Hussein -- a major test for U.S. forces seeking to establish order in Iraq.

In other developments in Iraq:

  • Christians, who make up about 5 percent of Iraq's population, crowded into churches across the country to celebrate Easter. A longtime bishop of Baghdad used the occasion to ask that U.S. President George W. Bush help introduce an Iraqi constitution that treats Christians the same as Muslims.
  • The United States should not expect to create a functioning democracy in Iraq for at least five years, said Sen. Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a broadcast interview, Lugar said he thinks the United States would draw the line at accepting an elected theocracy, similar to that in neighboring Iran.
  • Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, a longtime exile who has proclaimed himself in charge of Baghdad, said Sunday that Iraq's new constitution would be derived from Islamic law and promised to try anyone whose "hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people." No U.S. officials attended his news conference.
  • Mr. Bush says Syria is "beginning to get the message" about cooperating with U.S. in capturing fleeing Iraqi leaders. Syria will not give asylum to Iraqis wanted for war crimes and will expel any Iraqi who crosses into the country, President Bashar Assad told two U.S. congressmen Sunday, the lawmakers said.
  • The New York Times reports the United States plans to keep four long-term military bases in Iraq.
  • The Marines pulled out of Baghdad on Sunday, replaced by U.S. Army units. The shift will dramatically reduce number of American troops in Baghdad, although precise figures were not released.

    For Christians among the American troops in Iraq, Easter services were offered at several sites where soldiers on patrol duty have been sleeping on the ground or in vacated public buildings.

    On the grounds of an Iraqi air defense artillery school, 30 soldiers of the 101st Airborne put down their weapons and gathered -- camouflage Bibles in hand — for a service conducted by Chaplain Maj. John Routzhan. Behind him, a cross stood upright in a mound of sand.

    Routzhan encouraged the men to rejoice that fellow Iraqi Christians in Baghdad were allowed to celebrate their faith freely.

    You "have stayed the hand of the enemy, and that hand is becoming a friend," Routzhan said in prayer. The United States has been an adversary to Iraq, he said, "but You have brought us to the point that we can be friends."

    As many as 2 million Shiites from Iraq, Iran and other countries are expected to converge this week on the cities Karbala and Najaf.
    U.S. troops are seeking a low profile to avoid arousing anti-American feelings, even as they stockpile emergency food and water for the pilgrims.

    "We don't want to interfere with the pilgrimage.... But we are prepared for the worst," said Maj. James M. Bozeman of the 82nd Airborne Division.

    At least one leading Shiite cleric — Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, head of an Iran-based anti-Saddam movement — has suggested that marchers express their rejection of the U.S. military presence.

    For Shiites in their 20s and 30s, it is their first time on the march. For older men like Hussein Saman, 48, imprisoned for 11 years for openly practicing Shiite rituals, it was his first pilgrimage since the early 1970s.

    "In the days of Saddam, if anyone did this march, he was killed," said Saman. "The least penalty was prison, for life."

    Shiites, 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, were repressed under Saddam's regime, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims. Under Saddam, any pilgrim who tried to make the three- or four-day march to Karbala from Baghdad was turned back at a checkpoint.

    The pilgrimage marks 40 days after the date on which a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad -- one of the Shiite Islam's most revered saints -- is believed to have been killed in Karbala.

    The pope called for peace during his Easter message, drawing cheers from some 60,000 people who stood in windy, rain-soaked St. Peter's Square.

    "With the support of the international community, may the Iraqi people become the protagonists of their collective rebuilding of their country," John Paul said.

    Before the conflict, the pope had vigorously spoken out against war and tried to use Vatican diplomacy to avert it.

    The phrase "international community" in Vatican diplomatic circles generally refers to the United Nations. The pope's call appeared aimed at using his moral weight to put pressure on Washington, London and others involved in the U.S.-led war to turn to that forum for the post-war effort.

    The pope and others at the Vatican have expressed concern that the war would be seen by the Islamic world as a Christian crusade against it.

    "May God grant that we be free from the peril of a tragic clash between cultures and religions," John Paul said.

    He also touched upon other conflicts, including Israeli-Palestinian fighting that is now in its 30th month.

    "(May there be) peace in other parts of the world, where forgotten wars and protracted hostilities are causing deaths and injuries amid silence and neglect on the part of considerable sectors of public opinion," John Paul said.

    "With profound grief I think of the wake of violence and bloodshed, with no sign of ceasing, in the Holy Land," the pontiff said.

    He also said some African countries risked being abandoned, and he cited "attacks on people's freedom in the Caucasus, in Asia and in Latin America."

    Iraq was a dominant theme in Easter sermons delivered in Britain, with one archbishop warning that Britain and the United States have much to do to improve the post-war situation.

    The Archbishop of York, David Hope, called on the coalition forces to put as much energy into reconstructing Iraq as they had into toppling Saddam.

    "Quite frankly, despite all the promises, given how things currently are in Kabul and Afghanistan, post-war does not bode well as to how things might be in Baghdad and Iraq," Hope told worshippers at York Minster in northern England.