Iraq Cancels Christmas

By Claire Evans

12/11/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)Wearing a gas mask, Santa strolls down the streets of Baghdad. He carefully treads through flurries of shredded trash strewn across dirt blackened by nearly three months of ongoing protests. Iraq’s churches declared Christmas cancelled—so Santa walks the streets early, distributing offertory roses of peace among protesters.

Bridges, also a symbol of peace, have become defined by some of the deadliest scenes of violence throughout Iraq’s protests. Christians and Muslims gather, their religious differences reconciled as they stand together with a unified voice: no more corruption, no more sectarianism, protect our rights. Instead, the government met them with violence. An estimated 400 dead, and 15,000 injured.

Though many churches have had to cancel services since the start of the protests, canceling Christmas throughout Iraq is a statement of solidarity. Cardinal-Patriarch Louis Sako explained the decision, “Canceling Christmas and New Year celebrations are respecting the blood of the martyrs which has been shed. We also feel the pain of their parents. We will not receive guests for Christmas at the Patriarch office this year. We will only do mass and pray for our martyrs and the victims of violence. Also we will pray for healing for the injured ones.”

He added, “We hope life goes back to normal and Iraq can host all of its religions and ethnic groups. We hope a country can maintain rights of equality, respect, nationalism, and life with dignity.”

The protests have inspired a new hope for Christians that life is possible in Iraq, and that Muslims will support their place in society. But the violence of the government toward protesters is both shocking and alarming. No one knows if the protesters will succeed. It is hard to celebrate Christmas while blood runs through the streets.

“Christmas and New Year’s celebrations being canceled [is] a kind of support to our brothers and sisters who are protesting,” said one believer from northern Iraq. “I am so sorry for what is happening in Baghdad and the southern parts of Iraq. I wish I can celebrate at Tahir Square [with the protesters].”

This pain is felt by many Christians. Watching their countrymen stand for equal rights—and paying the ultimate price—is like a surreal dream. “We are not happy enough to celebrate as we do every year. What we are witnessing on the ground is very depressing. The blood shed is valuable,” added one.

“2019 was a sad year, now it is toward the end and we have a slice of hope,” shared another. “We lost a lot of young people and we are looking for a solution for the foundation, not the branches. I will not celebrate this year, and will not even have a Christmas tree unless I see true government change.”

The symbolism of canceling Christmas has resonated deeply with Muslims, who are further encouraged to continue asking for equality of rights in Iraq. “We appreciate what Sako did by cancelling the celebrations,” one Muslim woman supporting the protests shared. “This is a great support for the parents who lost a member. Christians are well known with their courage and respecting others. I am happy to live among Christians. I hope we have a Christian prime minister or president one day!”

Santa—a Christian symbol—walking through the streets of Baghdad was an encouragement for protesters to continue asking for these kinds of changes. “Santa used to be a sign of joy,” observed one local Muslim. “Not this year. I believe Santa this year is a sign of hope of a better future.”

His presence on the streets showed how, even while officially the country is not celebrating Christmas, the occasion will be acknowledged, not forgotten. One Syriac priest explained, “There will be a mass on Christmas. It is an extraordinary occasion. Christ has born, but there is a wound in our hearts. It is the wound of the country. The young people who fall down because of violence; we will not celebrate as normal.”

“I am one of them who will celebrate Christmas service as normal. The revelation continues! We will pray for victory against the corrupted parties,” an evangelical Christian also shared.

So much uncertainty swirls throughout Iraq. Will the protesters truly achieve victory?

But one thing is certain: when Christmas day finally dawns in Iraq, a silent prayer will be gathering within the hearts of many citizens, regardless of religion. A prayer for peace. A prayer for equality. A prayer for a new way of life in their country.

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