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IRAQ: Resilient Anglicans proceed with Easter Day services despite Baghdad bombings

[Episcopal News Service] A coordinated series of car bomb explosions in central Baghdad on April 4 may have shattered the windows and caused some structural damage to St. George's Memorial Church, but that did not deter resilient worshipers from proceeding with their Easter Day services and celebrating Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

"The buildings in our compound shuddered, the windows shattered, the sirens began screeching and some [people] nearby ran to us in tears. Birds even fell dead from the sky," said the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George's, who was preparing for the morning Eucharist service when the explosions shook the city and the church's foundations.

But despite their difficulties in reaching the church, the congregation "started to flock in," said White in an e-mail message. "The service continued joyfully [and] hundreds of children sang."

The governor of Baghdad also attended the Easter Day service at St. George's, the last remaining Anglican church in Iraq located in Baghdad's Red Zone.

"Surrounded by security ... he came into the church, took the front row, and after the introduction he spoke to us [and] assured us that he would never leave us," White said.

The three car bombs that exploded within moments of each other on April 4 were targeting foreign embassies and reportedly killed more than 40 people and wounded some 200 others. White said that the bomb explosion that had impacted the church was targeting the nearby Iranian Embassy.

At first, "it took a while for the magnitude of what happened to sink in," he said. "I sent out a quick short message on Facebook before the internet and phones stopped working. This was our Resurrection Day."

In the following days, further blasts in and around Baghdad have claimed about 120 lives, the Associated Press reports.

White, who is known as the "vicar of Baghdad," is president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, an organization that promotes interfaith relations in the Middle East.

Although St. George's serves about 2,000 worshipers, White estimates that 90 percent of Iraq's Christians, who once numbered more than a million, have fled or been murdered by Islamic extremists since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Easter Day attacks are the latest in a series of suicide bombings that have affected St. George's Church in recent years.

Two major suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad in October 2009 caused serious damage to the church and left at least 150 dead and more than 600 injured on the streets outside.

Despite serving as a pastor in one of the most dangerous regions in the world, White's faith remains strong. On Easter Day, he described the worship as "the most amazing I had ever experienced in Iraq. There was such joy as we sang of the Lord's resurrection and glory ... We celebrated Easter like I have never done before. The Lord was indeed with us."

-- Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of Episcopal News Service.

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