A great article that gives insight into the plight of Iraqi Christians
Christians mark wary Christmas
Chaldean Iraqis fear terrorism, repression for minority beliefs
By Aamer Madhani
BAGHDAD — The traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass at Baghdad ‘s Virgin Mary Chaldean Catholic Church started before sundown this year because of security concerns.
By sunset many parishioners seemed to be getting antsy in the pews, and dozens in the congregation decided to make an early exit after receiving communion but before the archbishop could give his final blessing.
On even the happiest of days in Baghdad , it is difficult to shake the long shadow of the insurgency.
“I miss how Christmas used to be,” said Noel Yunis, 47, a Virgin Mary parishioner. “The late-night mass felt special, and on Christmas Day we would stay out late with our friends and families, drinking and dancing at the club until 2 in morning. This we can do no more.”
Mass was said early so the churchgoers could get home before the streets became deserted. The parties at the clubs, which have long been shuttered, were replaced by smaller celebrations at homes. Even the Shiite Muslim man who for years has been selling Christmas trees not far from the church complained that the holiday spirit is waning and hitting his wallet hard.
“In years before, I sold as many 1,000 trees before Christmas,” said Haider Abdul Hadi, 37. “This year I have sold 120. I don’t know if I will even break even.”
The once 800-strong congregation at Virgin Mary is down to about 150 regular attendees, said the church’s pastor, Rev. Peter Haddad. Many of his congregants have fled the country for Jordan , Syria and elsewhere, while many more are just too scared that a church is a big terrorist target, he said.
After bombers attacked five churches on Oct. 16, 2004, killing 20 people, churchgoers’ confidence has yet to be fully restored, Haddad said. Last year, many churches in Baghdad decided to scrap Christmas celebrations altogether.
And while many churchgoers said they were happy just to be able to observe their traditional Christmas Eve, albeit hours early, Haddad and his parishioners said they are increasingly anxious as minorities in Iraq .
The situation for secular Iraqis and minorities, such as Christians, appears to be growing even more complicated as a result of the Dec. 15 elections, in which Islamist lists–both Shiite and Sunni–apparently took an overwhelming majority of the overall vote.
“We were optimistic before the election, but the results show that people vote by their identities, whether it be [Shiite], Sunni, Kurd, Turkmen or even Christian,” Haddad said. “I tell the people of my church that all countries have passed through difficult times. Now it’s probably just our turn.”
It is unclear just how many Christians live in Iraq . At the beginning of the war, most estimates put Iraq ‘s Christian minority at 800,000, or 3 percent of the population. Christian activists say tens of thousands have fled the country since the start of the war, but accurate numbers on the Christian migration are unavailable.
For all the anxiety, the mass at the Virgin Mary church went off without a hitch. Emmanuel III Delly, patriarch of the world’s 1 million Chaldean Catholics, celebrated the mass and gave a heartfelt sermon.
The choir sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”–in a mixture of Arabic and English–for the parishioners as they waited for the mass to start, and a lyrically altered version of “Jingle Bells” as the churchgoers filed out–apparently, a “one-horse open sleigh” doesn’t resonate in central Iraq.
In his benediction, Delly acknowledged to the faithful that Iraqis are going through a trying time, but he prayed that the country would find its way soon.
“Our Iraq is ill, and we need to find a good medicine to cure this illness,” the patriarch said. “Where is the love between us these days? There is no love.”