December 23, 2010 in Nation/World

Fear mutes Christmas in Iraq

New al-Qaida threats follow attack on church
Yahya Barzanji Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

An Iraqi police officer stands guard outside a closed church in Baghdad on Wednesday. Christmas events are canceled.
(Full-size photo)

Christian population

Few reliable statistics exist on the number of Christians in Iraq, a nation of 29 million people. A recent State Department report says Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 remain, down from a prewar level as high as 1.4 million by some estimates.

KIRKUK, Iraq – Iraqi Christians on Wednesday called off Christmas festivities across the country as al-Qaida insurgents threatened more attacks on a beleaguered community still terrified from a bloody siege at a Baghdad church two months earlier.

A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public Christmas celebrations out of concern over new terror attacks and as a show of mourning for the victims of the church siege and other violence.

Church officials in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, the southern city of Basra and in the capital confirmed they will not put up Christmas decorations or hold evening Mass and have urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus was called off.

“Nobody can ignore the threats of al-Qaida against Iraqi Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. “We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak.”

Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since a Baghdad church attack in October that left 68 people dead. Days later insurgents targeted Christian homes and neighborhoods across the capital with a series of bombs.

An al-Qaida front group that claimed responsibility for the church siege vowed at the time to carry out a reign of terror against Christians.

The Islamic State of Iraq renewed its threats in a message posted late Tuesday on a website frequented by Islamic extremists. The group said it wants the release of two women it claims are being held captive by Egypt’s Coptic Church.

Muslim extremists in Egypt say the church has detained the women for allegedly converting to Islam. The church denies the allegations but extremists in Iraq have latched onto the issue. The message Tuesday was addressed to Iraq’s Christian community and said it was designed to “pressure” Egypt.

Since the deadly church siege, the U.N. estimates some 1,000 Christian families have fled to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, which is generally much safer.

For those who remain, this Christmas will be a somber affair.

In Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, Sako said church officials will not put up Christmas decorations outside the church and urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes.

A traditional Santa Claus appearance outside one of the city’s churches has also been called off, he said. Money usually used on celebrations or gifts will instead go to help Christian refugees, he said.

At Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church where more than 120 parishioners were held hostage by gunmen on Oct. 31, there will be no Christmas tree and Mass on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day has been canceled. Only a modest manger display representing the birth of Jesus Christ will mark the occasion.

“We have canceled all celebrations in the church,” said the Rev. Mukhlis. “We are still in deep sorrow over the innocent victims who fell during the evil attack.”

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