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Iraq’s Christians face a difficult Christmas

With sectarian violence rising again, many are afraid to go to church services. A Christian is killed in Mosul and 27 Shiite Muslims are slain as they prepare for Ashura.

By Caesar Ahmed and Omar Hayali

12/25/2009 Iraq (Los Angeles Times) – Reporting from Baghdad and Mosul – The Judo family stayed away from Christmas Eve Mass in Baghdad. Because of recent sectarian violence in the capital and other areas of the country, they were worried that churches might be targeted by armed groups.

By nightfall, their worst fears had been realized. Not only had a Christian been killed in the northern city of Mosul, but the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura, which this year begins one day after Christmas, had made the situation even more volatile: 27 people killed in attacks on Shiite neighborhoods.

Only months ago, there was optimism that Iraq might be on the verge of stability, but after weeks of rising bloodshed, many churches closed their doors Thursday evening or hosted few guests for a late-afternoon Christmas Eve Mass.

Most Christians fled Baghdad in 2006 and ’07 at the height of the sectarian violence when Islamic militants branded them U.S. collaborators, attacked their churches and gave them an ultimatum to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax. A year ago, some returned triumphantly to their neighborhoods.

But now they again are alarmed by the security situation in the city and nervous about drawing attention to themselves.

In Mosul, churches opened for Mass but most Christians traveled to nearby Qaraqosh. The biggest attacks against Christians have come in Mosul, including three car bombings in the last two weeks. In late 2008, hundreds of Christians fled the city after attacks; the city’s archbishop was slain earlier that year.

In one Mosul neighborhood, Abu Isho, 51, and his family sat in their living room, decorated with a tree, lights and gifts for Christmas morning. He wondered whether this would be his last Christmas in Iraq. If things keep deteriorating, he said, they will leave.

His wife, Umm Isho, said she no longer wanted people to know her religion.

“As a Christian, I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I put the scarf on my head when I go to work, so no one will know that I am Christian.”

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