BAGHDAD - Three years ago, a note appeared at Lita Kaseer's door. It contained a bullet and a one-word message: "Leave."

Kaseer did flee, along with hundreds of other Christian families from the Dora neighborhood in Baghdad, once a vibrant Christian community.

This year, she returned from Syria, and yesterday she attended Christmas Mass with her husband and 7-month-old son.

"It's always better to come home," said her husband, Khalid Kamil, 34. "In any other place, you are a stranger."

Hundreds of Christians gathered to celebrate Christmas in Baghdad, most acknowledging that improved security let them move more freely throughout the city after returning from years-long exiles in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, or Iraq's northern Kurdistan region.

In the Christian neighborhood of Karada, a Santa Claus handed out religious CDs and pamphlets, including "25 Stories From the Bible" and "The Greatest Gift." In recent years, such an act could have resulted in death.

Christians are estimated to make up under 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million population, and some reports say that about half fled after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

'A real presence'

At least 600 holiday worshipers packed the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in the Karada neighborhood, where a flashing red-and-gold Christmas tree adorned the altar. Women wore their hair uncovered and came dressed in their holiday finest - festive red sweaters and skirts, bejeweled jeans and knee-high, lace-up boots.

For the first time in memory, the Iraqi government declared Christmas a national holiday. Last week, a community event was held at a local park to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Large posters depicting a portrait of Jesus and a Christmas tree could be spotted around town.

"As Christians, we feel like we have a real presence in Iraq - and rights," said Lena Ayat, 19.

"I feel safer," said her mother, Lameya Mashreq. "We are free to choose the clothes that we wear."

Checkpoints

Not that conditions are ideal throughout Iraq. In the northern city of Mosul, more than 900 Christian families fled as recently as October after attacks by Sunni Arab extremists. Christians there celebrated more privately, fearing gunmen and violence.

Samir Yusef said he and his wife finally returned to their home in Baghdad's Dora district three months ago after being displaced for two years. About 30 percent of the Christian families have returned there, he said. Although it is safer, Dora remains difficult to maneuver because of roadblocks and security checkpoints, he said.

A group of Muslim women, garbed in their black

abayas

, stuck out among the crowd at the church, sitting together in one pew. Zahara Abdulwahid Al-Issa said she came to make a special Christmas wish this year. "I was pleading with the Virgin Mary so that my three daughters will get married," Issa said.

But even as worshipers gathered, violence struck just a few miles away. A car bomb exploded near a popular restaurant in northwestern Baghdad, killing four people.

In Diyala province, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, a suicide car bomber targeted an American patrol convoy in front of the Muqdadiya police station. Three civilians were killed and 14 people injured, including four Iraqi police officers, authorities said.