More than half of the Christian population fled Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. Thousands more took refuge in Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan after fleeing severe persecution in their home cities of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, among others. “Christmas in Kurdistan takes on a special meaning for Christians knowing that not all their fellow citizens are free to celebrate the holiday,” RFI reports.
By Hermione Gee
12/25/2012 Iraq (RFI) – Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is home to one of the world's oldest Christian communities. In the last decade it has also welcomed Christians from the rest of Iraq who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. Christmas in Kurdistan takes on a special meaning for Christians knowing that not all their fellow citizens are free to celebrate the holiday.
You might think that one place you could avoid Christmas music in mid-December would be Iraq. But driving through Erbil, capital of the country’s Kurdistan Region, on a wet December afternoon, the local Babylon FM radio station has a full festive play list.
That’s because Kurdistan is very different from the rest of the country as many Iraqi Christian refugees have discovered in recent years.
Since the 2003 Iraq war, the Kurdistan Region has offered a safe haven to Christians fleeing religious persecution in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and other Southern Iraqi cities. The small suburb of Ainkawa lies on the edge of the region’s capital Erbil and about 90% of its 40,000 strong population is Christian, most of them Assyrians or Chaldeon Catholics.
Ninos Mishu is a priest at the Assyrian Church of the East, St John Baptism Church, in Ainkawa, Erbil.
“We have [on] 24th, Monday, we have a prayer beginning at 7.30 for celebration for coming of Jesus. And at morning 7.30, Tuesday, 25 December, we have a holy mass.”
“We are free here in Kurdistan to use our church here to pray, to make a holy mass. We are so safe here. We are always celebrating our prayers or holy mass. And there is no problems recorded until now. Thanks for God, and for our government that love the Christian people. And our neighbors, the Muslims, they are always giving their greetings for us, in Christmas or Easter.”
Christmas hasn’t always been so easy for Father Ninos. He and many of his congregation came to Kurdistan in 2007 from Dora, a town south of Baghdad, where the situation was very different:
“More different, more different, yeah. We was attacked as Christians. We spent Christmas in big fear. Our church was bombed by the terrorism, so we used for Christmas another church. It was problem to reach to the church, really.”
Not only can Ainkawa’s many churches openly celebrate Christmas, the town has also been a riot of festive decorations for weeks – closer to Santa’s Grotto than the heart of the Middle East.
Elias Abel Achoul is the owner of the events planning company White Pro and has donated this year’s Christmas tree to the neighborhood. An enormous conical structure, it has pride of place on a busy main road at the entrance to the town.