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U.S. Soldiers Celebrate Easter in Baghdad

April 20, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ With camouflage Bibles in hand, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division put down their weapons and gathered on cots and folding chairs Sunday morning to celebrate Easter on the grounds of an Iraqi air defense artillery school.

Elsewhere, at a military base 35 miles outside Iraq, Marines in shorts and T-shirts stepped inside a basin of water for Christian baptisms. They began their Easter by eating eggs dyed pink, purple, blue and yellow and later packed into a tent-turned-chapel for services.

``Spiritual issues become very important here,″ said Navy Cmdr. Jim Ellis, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s chaplain, who performed the baptisms wearing a flight suit. Ellis helped many Marines through the loss of friends in two helicopter crashes, and fears of going to war for the first time.

``A lot of guys are struggling with mortality,″ Ellis said.

In Baghdad, several services were offered in places where soldiers conducting patrols have been sleeping on the ground and in public buildings vacated by Iraqis.

``Morning. Happy Easter,″ Chaplain Maj. John Routzhan of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne said to the 30 soldiers present at the brigade’s first service of the day.

Behind him, a cross stood upright in a mound of sand.

``Hoo-ah!″ the soldiers replied. ``Morning.″ Their equipment was within reach.

The service started with the hymns ``Christ the Lord has risen today″ and ``Holy, holy, holy,″ with the words printed on white pieces of paper. One soldier read a Bible passage from the book of Luke about Christ rising from the dead three days after being crucified.

Routzhan encouraged soldiers to stand and offer prayers or thanks.

One soldier raised his hand to say his wife’s pregnancy is going well. Another said he was happy to be celebrating his 36th birthday.

Sgt. 1st Class John Stroman, 40, of Orangeburg, S.C., thanked God his unit had survived the war.

``We had a hard time when we first came over here. But he protected us from all harm and danger,″ Stroman said.

Before leading prayer and communion, Routzhan asked the soldiers to remember four colleagues injured Saturday in southern Baghdad when a young girl handed one of them a U.S. explosive that then blew up.

``We just want to pray for their recovery, and continue to pray in days ahead that all interaction with the enemy and unexploded ordnance would just vanish and go away,″ Routzhan said.

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

In prayer, he thanked God for having ``stayed the hand of the enemy, and that hand is becoming a friend.″ The United States has been an adversary to Iraq, he said, ``but you have brought us to the point that we can be friends.″

At the Marine baptism _ the military asked that its exact location not be disclosed _ helicopters clattered overhead as five men and two women emerged one after another from a pool of water set up at the back of the air base chapel. Ellis, the chaplain, shouted ``Hurrah!″ as Marines applauded.

For Cpl. Lindsey Gonzalez, 22, a radio technician from Kennewick, Wash., it was a chance to confirm the Christian faith she grew up with, surrounded by people who have been like a family to her in the absence of her husband and year-old daughter.

``I need them a lot,″ she said, drying off with a towel as fellow Marines came up to shake her hand.

``I’m just thankful that everyone out here is safe and we’re able to do this,″ said a friend, Sgt. Neal Salvador, 26, a communications officer from San Ramon, Calif., who was also baptized. ``It’s a good feeling.″

For Ellis, the decision of the young Marines to be baptized was made all the more significant by their proximity to Iraq _ reputed to be the birthplace of Abraham and the site of the Garden of Eden.

``The center of biblical history is here,″ the chaplain said.

___

AP writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this story.

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