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Christians in Baghdad commemorate mass baptisms with festival

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Sunday morning attacks in a Baghdad neighborhood weren't the kind that people might expect in this violence-plagued nation. Armed with buckets of water balloons, grinning children hurled them for hours at each other, unwary pedestrians and passing cars.

"We're having fun," declared a thoroughly soaked Mustaffah Marwan, 15.

On any other day such play would be nothing more than a good way to cool off when Baghdad's summer temperatures soar to 115 degrees or more. But this was no ordinary water fight.

Sunday was an Assyrian Christian festival commemorating mass baptisms by Jesus and the apostles.

Iraq's approximately 180,000 Assyrians and a large number of their Muslim neighbors celebrate the festival, called Nusardil, by splashing, if not dousing, each other with water. Many children and young adults use the occasion to mount high-spirited water wars.

In the Assyrian quarter of one neighborhood, 10-year-old Skiva Kamel, an Assyrian, and 13-year-old Osama Leewa, a Muslim, had been eagerly awaiting Sunday. They awoke at 6 a.m. to build an arsenal of 200 water balloons made from small plastic bags.

Standing at the intersection of two narrow streets, they were poised to pelt any passing vehicle. "Any car comes, I'll jump on it," Leewa vowed.

For many others, though, post-war crime and terrorism kept the Nusardil festival more subdued this year. In past years virtually entire Assyrian neighborhoods would hit the streets armed not only with water balloons but waterlogged sponges, water-filled plastic bottles and water bombs made of plastic shopping bags.

Recent attacks on liquor stores, almost exclusively owned by Christians because they were the only people Saddam Hussein licensed to sell alcohol, also have made some Assyrians uneasy about venturing outside.

"We can't celebrate in the street because of the situation," said Gewargis Sliwa, archbishop of the Church of the East in Iraq. But he said the liquor store attacks were the work of Muslim extremists upset at the sale of alcohol and did not specifically target Christians.

"There have been some incidents here and there, but that doesn't mean they're against the Christian Church," he said.

In any case, on Sunday Nahrin Youkhana Shino, a 45-year-old Baghdad housewife and Assyrian, decided that her four children would celebrate Nusardil not in the street but in the courtyard of their neighborhood Assyrian Christian church, where it was safe.

Toward that end the church set up two plastic pools a couple yards in diameter and about a foot deep not far from a pair of olive trees shading the courtyard. A dozen children frolicked in pools as their parents sat by, watching and splashing them. The pools were an addition to the Nusardil tradition, the archbishop said.

"Our priest said he wanted to make sure they were happy, so he invented this."

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(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FESTIVAL

Iraq

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