REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- Father Immanuel Dabaghian celebrates Mass. His voice echoes across the polished marble floors of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad, past the Christmas tree near the nave and the red-backed Bibles tucked into the pews.
The pews are empty. Not a single parishioner attends Mass on this cold weekday. But Father Immanuel perseveres, a tiny, stooped figure in white vestments. Every afternoon, he celebrates Mass. And most days he is alone.
Christians are fleeing Iraq, driven out by persecution and bombings. Nearly 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, Father Immanuel says, but the number has dwindled to perhaps 500,000 to 700,000 now.
At a typical Sunday Mass, 10 or 20 people attend, down from 200 before 2003. It takes two hours to drive through police and army checkpoints to the church. Then parishioners must submit to body searches at a police post outside the church entrance.
The church was bombed in 2004, one of a series of attacks on churches across Iraq. It is surrounded now by high concrete walls. Flags and banners of Shiite Muslim neighbors flutter in the streets outside, adding to the sense of siege inside the towering cathedral topped by a crucifix.
Father Immanuel cannot say whether the U.S.-led invasion improved or diminished the fortunes of Iraq’s Christians. But he fears what will happen after U.S. forces depart.
"I’m scared about that," he says in English. "We have a weak government that can’t protect us. The Americans should have stayed longer, until security is better."
On the church altar rests a U.S. military-issue Bible with a camouflage cover. During Mass, Father Immanuel reads verses from the book, in English. Then he returns to the Armenian liturgy of the Armenian Catholic faith.
His faith sustains him, he says, adding that one day the Christians of Iraq will flourish again and the country will be at peace in a post-American era.
"We shall go forth and change our country," he says. "Our faith is a force bigger than all other forces."
Photo: A Christian Iraqi is virtually alone celebrating a weekday Mass at the Church of the Virgin Mary in central Baghdad. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times