BAGHDAD — The pews were packed for the Christmas mass in Baghdad's Greek Orthodox church Thursday, a sign to Father Younan Yacob that the city had grown safer for its Christian minority over the past year.
But Yacob's entire family, including his four children, are living abroad. His wife and children are in Syria; his in-laws made it as far as Delhi, Calif.
Yacob remains in Baghdad, committed to his congregation, despite the lures of safety and opportunity that have pulled away as much as half of the roughly 800,000 Christians who lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The priest would love to see the refugees return, but he says the time isn't right.
Baghdad isn't safe enough, he said, and the refugees wouldn't be able to start their lives again without economic security.
"So many people who left Iraq sold everything," said Yacob, 41. "They don't have furniture. They don't have homes. They don't have jobs. How can I tell people to come back if they don't have jobs?"
The government of Iraq has tried to telegraph a message that the country is safe enough for Christian refugees to return this year.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki touted security improvements in a July meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Iraq Interior Minister Jawad Bolani this week hosted a Christmas celebration in the city's Karrada neighborhood where a man dressed up like Santa Claus mingled with children wearing traditional Iraqi clothing.
A banner at the outdoor party read, "Christians are part of the Iraqi people."
High profile attacks against Christians, particularly in the northern city of Mosul, test that message.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that as many 2,000 Christian families fled that city in October after a series of killings. Some began to return a month later with the help of $800 cash grants from the Iraqi government to help them resettle.
Yacob said the exodus won't reverse until Christians feel they can hold steady jobs in the Muslim country.
"They won't listen if I say turn back and I don't provide them with jobs and security," he said.
He put the plight of Christian refugees in the context of a larger crisis. The U.N. estimates that war and sectarian violence have displaced 4.7 million Iraqis from their homes, with two million of them living abroad.
Yacob's church on Thursday was filled with older couples and young families who intend to stay in Iraq.
Incense floated up the marble walls, crowded with gilded portraits of saints. A choir of children sang throughout Thursday's two-hour mass. Parents held the youngest ones.
Yacob wore a white robe decorated with silver and gold trimmings. He carried a silver Bible, and spoke with a calm smile during the mass. He gathered with the congregation for tea after the ceremony.
"With time, the security will be better and that will reflect on the people's presence in church for prayer," he said.
Pasteur and Elena Medik have attended the church for more than 30 years. They used to go to mass twice a week, but cut back to one trip because of security fears.
The church was twice struck by gunfire, Elena Medik said, though no one was hurt. Iraqi National Police patrols outside every Baghdad church on Christmas are reminders of the many sectarian assaults.
"There are so many extremists here," Pasteur Medik, a former lawyer, said. "There is the Sunni, there is the Shia, there are the Christians and nobody knows what."
"When people take religion to such an extreme, they forget that religion is love," he said. "It is good, but living here creates enemies."
The Mediks' three children live in Italy and Greece.
Pasteur Medik said the country feels safe enough at the moment, but he isn't sure it will last.
"We hope that what we are seeing will prevail," he said.
Yacob sat close with the Mediks after the mass. He asked for peace in the next year.
"I hope for Christians in Iraq and for all the people, to live in peace, and for God to send them peace on earth," he told McClatchy. "And for the displaced people, if they return, to feel stable and comfortable."
(Ashton reports for the Modesto, Calif., Bee. Special correspondents Jenan Hussein and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
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