BAGHDAD, Dec. 24 -- It was the night before Christmas, and at the Virgin Mary Church of Palestine Street in the Iraqi capital, parishioners were making last-minute preparations for the holiday.
Steel barricades were erected in front of the main gate to keep potential car bombers from getting too close to the church, and several young men rehearsed how they would search strangers for hidden explosives.
A few parishioners attended Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad. Security concerns forced the cancellation of many evening services in Iraq's capital; others were held in the morning.
(Samir Mizban -- AP)
The security director -- the church hired one of its parishioners for the job a few months ago -- said softly that he placed his hand over his heart every morning as he walked to work.
"We are frightened," he said, his blue eyes looking down at a desk covered with passages from the Bible and images of Mary, the mother of Jesus. "People are frightened to come to church."
For the first time in as long as even the old women could remember, Iraqi Christians prepared for the Christmas holiday with heart-thumping sadness and dread. This was the year to scan the sanctuary for the safest place to sit in case a bomb exploded. Or not to go at all.
Many Christmas Eve services were canceled or changed to daylight hours, and police cars guarded the churches on Friday night. Priests expected to deliver their Christmas messages to nearly empty churches. People shopping for presents, decorations and trees did not linger on streets for fear of being targeted by insurgents.
At a bookshop in Baghdad on Friday, Wasan Warda, 35, watched her husband, the owner, wrap Christmas gifts for a Muslim customer. "This is the first Christmas we will not go to the church for the service," she said.
"Put yourself in my shoes," her husband said. "Are you going to take your wife and kids to church with this danger?"
Warda began to cry. "But you know how important Christmas Mass is for us and for the kids," she said.
Car bombings, assassinations, shootings, kidnappings and beheadings have killed Iraqis from all religions and walks of life this year. But Christians say they have felt particularly vulnerable. They have been specifically targeted in several kidnappings and car bombings, including coordinated attacks on five churches in two cities in August that killed 11 people and injured nearly 50 who were attending services.
Some Christians who had openly worn crosses on chains around their necks now hide them under their clothes. Crosses dangling from the rearview mirrors of cars have also disappeared.
Iraq's 800,000 Christians have lived peacefully among the Muslim majority for hundreds of years. The Christian and Muslim populations are so interconnected that they share and celebrate blended holidays. Many Muslim families, for example, put up Christmas trees at this time of year.
"We used to live with the Muslims a long time ago, and the Christians in Iraq adhered to the traditions of the Iraqis," said May Younan Tawfeeq, who represents Assyrian Catholics in Iraq. "We live together, study together and work together. Now the situation is different. The intruders who infiltrated Iraq are trying to destroy the harmony between the Christians and the Muslims."
Many Christians left the country last week to celebrate Christmas in neighboring Syria, following tens of thousands who have permanently fled Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003.