A quiet Christmas for Christians in Iraq

A shopkeeper puts up a Christmas display in Baghdad. Iraq's Christian population has declined by at least a quarter in recent years.
A shopkeeper puts up a Christmas display in Baghdad. Iraq's Christian population has declined by at least a quarter in recent years. (Karim Kadim/associated Press)
By Michael Hastings
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christians in Iraq are preparing for a muted holiday season, with one bishop in the southern city of Basra calling for a ban on public festivities while other congregations across the country have canceled services and cautioned worshipers to keep their celebrations private.

The Chaldean bishop of Basra, Imad al-Banna, is asking Christians "not to display their joy, not to publicly celebrate the feast of Nativity" to avoid offending Iraq's Shiite community, whose Ashura holiday falls two days after Christmas this year.

According to Louis Sako, chief archbishop of Kirkuk for the Chaldean Christians, a Catholic sect that originated in Iraq, none of the northern archdiocese's nine churches has scheduled a Christmas Mass this year.

"This is the first time we have had to cancel our celebrations," he said.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq's Christian minority has faced constant persecution, including dozens of church bombings, executions, kidnappings and forced expulsions, devastating some communities and reducing the overall Christian population by at least 25 percent.

Just last week, a double car bombing at a church in Mosul killed four people and injured 40.

This year, with Christmas falling so close to Ashura, church officials in Baghdad and other cities say they have received warnings of attacks, forcing them to limit services to indoors and caution followers to keep family gatherings discreet.

"We are in solidarity with the people in Basra," said Abdel Ahad, pastor of Baghdad's Syrian Catholic Church. "We are afraid. We need to stop the bloodshed. We are going to do our prayers, but we will not celebrate."

"In the past, our church and courtyard would be full on Christmas -- we'd be out on the streets with Muslims and Christians," said a priest at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in downtown Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now there are many fewer people. We are preparing a Mass on Christmas Eve -- we have an organ, a choir and a Christmas tree. Nothing special."

In Kirkuk, a sign on the door of the Kirkuk Cathedral for Chaldean Christians read, in part: "We apologize to all the brothers for not conducting celebrations or accepting greetings or guests, but we pray for peace and security in Iraq. We cannot celebrate because of our grief over the victims of the bombings in Mosul and Baghdad."

"Every year, we see a kind of escalation in attempts to forcefully displace the Christians, especially in Mosul and Kirkuk," said Imad Yildar, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian political party, in Kirkuk.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians remain in Iraq, but many live in isolated enclaves, according to church officials.

Sako, the Chaldean archbishop, said that 10,000 Christians have fled Kirkuk in the past three months, and church officials in Basra have reported that the Christian community there has halved to about 2,500 people because of militia attacks.

The United Nations reported over the summer that 12,000 Christians had left Mosul and recently called for a "redoubling of efforts" to protect the besieged minority. Many Christian families have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where church services and festivities are held with no apparent security problems.

Others, however, refuse to leave. "Attacks and car-bomb explosions have targeted all segments of Iraqi society, and Christians are no exception," said Bassim Balwan, the mayor of Tekief, a Christian community 15 miles northeast of Mosul. "We shall not leave our homes, because we are original settlers and citizens of Iraq."

Iraqi security officials said they are taking measures to protect Christians this season. Police inspected the Virgin Mary church in Baghdad on Monday morning, and police in Fallujah are posting extra guards at churches and helping worshipers travel to Baghdad by convoy.

"We have taken our security procedures to protect the Christians in their celebrations in the city," said Lt. Col. Jima'ah Aldliamee, a police commander in Anbar province.

"They promised to protect us in the past, but so far they have not succeeded," said Georges Matti, an employee of the state-owned North Oil. "We are the victims of political conflicts between various Iraqi groups or at the hands of some religious extremists who believe that because we are Christians, we are lackeys of the West."

"Psychologically, we cannot have a celebration," said Qais Aboudi, a 56-year-old carpenter and member of a Baghdad Chaldean parish. "But we cannot deny we are Christians. It is our religion, and we are proud of it."

"I'm fed up. I've been speaking with the press for seven years. I have no comment," said Ahad, the Syrian Catholic pastor. "I've been asking the Iraqi government, asking the Americans, and no one has helped us.

"I used to celebrate Christmas with many people, with joy, with visits, with guests," said the pastor at the Virgin Mary church. "Now I am staying here alone. We are living like rats."

Hastings is a special correspondent for The Washington Post. Special correspondent Aziz Alwan and the Post's Iraqi staff contributed to this report.

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