The little Church of the Virgin Mary of the Holy Heart in the centre of Baghdad was packed for Christmas mass on Thursday but the shortage of men gave a clue to the harrassment the community has faced.
As worshippers quietly listened to the sermon and received communion in a two-hour service, a quick count of the congregation of around 200 showed that about 75 percent of them were women.
The lopsided gender ratio is a grim reminder of the violence Iraq’s beleaguered minority Christian community has endured since the 2003 US-led invasion sparked vicious sectarianism in this multi-faith nation.
“A lot of men were kidnapped, killed or have been unemployed since 2003, so (many) have left, especially Christians,” said Sundus Butros, 38, who was directly affected by the violence when one of her brothers was kidnapped in 2006.
“The kidnappers demanded 30,000 dollars, so we paid it,” she said, adding that soon afterwards her three brothers emigrated, two going to the United States and another to Syria.
Butros, a pharmacist, and her husband, a doctor, moved to Syria after a bomb went off too close to her pharmacy but in the end decided to return because they could not find jobs in their fields.
With police guarding the gates of the Chaldean Catholic church on Palestine Street, once one of Baghdad’s most dangerous areas, worshippers came in numbers to celebrate one of the most important Christian holidays.
“We are less afraid than before,” said Rasha Nizar, a 25-year-old mother of two. “But because of what has happened many of our traditions have become forbidden to us.”
Security has improved in Baghdad and throughout most of Iraq in recent months, but the country remains dangerous, making the traditional Christmas midnight mass a risky affair.
The sectarian violence that has gripped Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities has not spared the Christians. Churches have been attacked and priests kidnapped. Many of them have been killed.
Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the 2003 US-led invasion, but the number has since shrunk by at least a third as members of the various communities have fled the country, according to Christian leaders.
“We don’t want Christians to leave Iraq. We are in our house. We have been here for 2,000 years when St. Thomas the apostle founded our church,” said Shlemon Warduni, Chaldean Catholic auxiliary bishop in Baghdad.
“But people are so tired, afraid from the killings, the car bombs and suicide bombers. There is no work, prices are higher, what can they do?” he asked, adding that half of his 800-family congregation had left.
Inside Warduni’s office, where a picture of him together with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican figures prominently on the wall, the round-faced bishop explained that Muslims and Christians share many values, although not all.
“We have shared and lived together for many centuries,” he said, a view officially held by the government, as Christmas Day is now a holiday in Iraq.
Yet opposite the 40-year old church, a former Baath party building that opened as a Mosque four years ago still appears to operate as a competing ideology.
“Once we ring the (church) bell or the mass begins, the muezzin responds by chanting loudly the suras of the Koran,” said Wassim, 30, a church goer whose great grandfather came to Iraq by way of India with British troops in 1916.
“If it is not to bother us it is to humiliate us… I want to leave (Iraq).”
More than 200 Christians have been killed across Iraq since the US invasion, with the violence intensifying in October, particularly in the northern city of Mosul.
The Iraqi government was forced to send police reinforcements to Mosul after at least 12 Christians were killed. Several Christian houses were vandalised and burnt down and others were threatened, prompting 2,500 families to leave.
Many families have since returned, but for Christians in Iraq’s second largest city the memory of what happened is far too fresh to shunt aside.
“We are going to put on a smile and keep the sorrows in our hearts when we are hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree but the tears will roll down our faces,” said Firas Riyadh 38, a lawyer, told AFP in Mosul.