By Timothy Williams in Baghdad
AS A priest led prayers for a few dozen worshippers inside Baghdad’s St Joseph Chaldean Church last Sunday, police officers stood guard outside. They blocked the street to traffic and frisked those who entered for explosive belts.
At churches in the Iraqi capital this week, Christians are being asked for identification to determine if they have names the security force members recognise as Christian.
For Christians in Iraq, this will be a year of cancelled holiday celebration and of Christmas Masses spent under the protective watch of police and soldiers, after a spate of threats by extremist groups to bomb churches on Christmas Day
Yesterday, a bomb hit Mar Toma Church in the northern city of Mosul, killing two men â€“ both Muslims â€“ and damaging the 1,200-year-old building.
“I’m very sad we are not able to have our rituals for Christmas this year, but we do not want any Christians to be harmed,” said Edward Poles, a Christian priest at Saa Church in Mosul, which was also bombed last week.
In Baghdad, Christians said they were as fearful as they had been since 2006, when an outbreak of sectarian warfare forced many to leave their neighbourhoods for months at a time.
“There will be no celebration, said Duraid Issam, 41, a clerk. “We will keep it quiet because things are really bad. We are not targeted only at churches, but even in our houses because they will plant bombs outside our homes too.”
There are no exact figures on the number of Christians in Iraq, but the community was estimated at 750,000 before the 2003 invasion. Since then, they have become the targets of killings and kidnappings, leading thousands to flee.
Many who remain are frightened and have taken precautions to conceal signs of their faith. Celebrations this year will be even more low key because Christmas coincides with the Muslim observance of Ashura, a time of mourning for Shiite Muslims.
“Our celebrations will not be open and will be restricted to going to the church in the morning,” said Naeil Victor, 58, a teacher in Basra. “My children are upset because they have been waiting for this for a year now, but my wife and my father understand what is going on around them.”
Some churches have dozens of soldiers and police positioned around them after the government received the names of churches that extremist groups said would be bombed on Christmas Day. Other churches have received individual threats.
In Mosul, four churches have been now been bombed. In one attack, a baby was killed. Last week, a Christian man in Mosul was shot dead as he walked down a street.
At least one church there has decided to relocate its Christmas Mass from Mosul to a small town about 30 miles north because parishioners say they feel it will be safer for them.
The Rev Behnam Asaad, of Qahira Church, said: “We have distributed cards and fliers to the Christian families of this church informing them about the time and place where we will have the celebration, but we fear that assassinations might take place even after Christmas.”
Some, however, take a different view. “They are targeting not only us, but all Iraqis,” said Ann Benjamin, 26, after she walked through a phalanx of security personnel to attend Mass at al-Qaleb al-Aqdas (Sacred Heart) Church in the Karada district of Baghdad. “I am not afraid of going to church â€“ even if I die there, I will be happy to die in God’s home.”