MOSUL, Iraq â€” Iraqi Christians in the northern city of Mosul say this year has been the worst in living memory. After a wave of killings and attacks in October, more than 2,000 families fled to nearby villages.
Mosul remains one of the most dangerous places in Iraq and a stubborn holdout of the insurgency, but security has improved enough that at least half of those families have returned. On Thursday, they braved the violence and biting cold and rain to attend Christmas Masses and pray for their safety.
At the nearly thousand-year-old Chaldean church of Miskinta, where a bomb had exploded in October and graffiti praising the insurgency remains on a nearby wall, about 50 parishioners followed a deacon outside to the courtyard, where a fire was lighted to symbolize the birth of Christ.
Many tried to hold back tears as they prayed for â€œthe rebirth of tormented Iraq to a new life of forgiveness and compassion.â€
Among those attending the Mass was Fadi Ammar, 5, who lost his father and another relative in a bombing in the Mosul Al-Jadida neighborhood of the city on Dec. 1, which killed 21 people. The family had just returned to Mosul after fleeing in October to their ancestral village in the adjacent Nineveh Plain, which, although part of the province that includes Mosul, is now under the effective protection of Kurds from the semiautonomous Kurdistan region and is considered significantly safer than Mosul.
Another Mass, at St. Paulâ€™s on the east side of the city, was held on Wednesday afternoon instead of on Christmas Eve because of security precautions.
To the extent that security has improved, it is thanks largely to the nearly 3,000 national police officers sent here from Baghdad to bolster the local force in October.
But many of the Christians who have returned said they did so because they were inspired by the determination and faith of one priest and a handful of nuns to remain in the city against the odds.
At St. Paulâ€™s, Mikhail Ibrahim said the only reason he returned to Mosul after fleeing for a few weeks with his family was because of his faith in the Rev. Basman George Fatouhi, the Chaldean Churchâ€™s de facto leader in Mosul.
â€œHe was the only one who stayed and took care of the community,â€ Mr. Ibrahim said. â€œHe told us to come back and we did.â€
Father Fatouhi, a charismatic 27-year-old priest, was thrust into the effective leadership of the Chaldean Church in Mosul after the kidnapping and death this year of its leader, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho. Archbishop Rahhoâ€™s closest aide, another senior figure in the church, was killed in 2007.
Father Fatouhi had negotiated with the archbishopâ€™s kidnappers, who abducted the archbishop after a church service and killed three of his companions.
Their demands went from $300,000 to $20,000, but after the lesser sum was paid the negotiators were told that the archbishop had died in captivity because he did not have his diabetes medication.
Father Fatouhi and another church member dug his body out of a shallow grave and took it to the morgue.
Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians have been hit hard, particularly in parts of Baghdad and Mosul. Numerous churches and the Chaldean archdiocese building in Mosul were bombed, and many priests and parishioners were killed or kidnapped for ransom.
The largest Christian denomination is the Chaldean Church, an Eastern Rite church that is part of the Roman Catholic Church but maintains its own customs and liturgy.
Attacks on Chaldeans are just one element in Mosulâ€™s stew of simmering ethnic, political and sectarian tensions.
Mosul is home to a mix of Sunni insurgents once linked to Saddam Hussein and to the home-grown group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nineveh Province is also the contested buffer zone between the central government and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region. About 5,000 American soldiers are stationed in the province.
There is ample evidence to suggest that many of the kidnappings and killings of Christians were carried out by Sunni militant groups and that ransom money has gone to finance the insurgency. But there is increased talk among Christians and the central government in Baghdad that the violence may be the work of Kurds who want to push Christians in Nineveh to ask to have their historic lands absorbed into the relative safety of Kurdistan.
Kurdish leaders strongly deny those charges.
Also on Christmas, a roadside bombing in western Mosul killed two civilians and wounded five, Iraqi security officials said.
A car bomb left at a crowded riverside park was dismantled by American forces before blowing up, according to several witnesses. And an American soldier was killed in an â€œindirect fire attackâ€ near the city, the military said.
Amid the violence, the few remaining church leaders like Father Fatouhi and Sister Autour Yousif, who also belongs to the Chaldean Church, are working against the tide to keep their faith alive.
During the depths of the crisis in October, they were not only providing moral and spiritual support, but often venturing out at great risk to buy food and provisions for families who were too scared to even go to the market. They have also been determined to maintain church services in some of the most dangerous parts of the city.
On numerous occasions the pair have found themselves carrying out the grim task of collecting the bodies of Christians from the morgue because their families were too afraid to do it.
Sister Yousif is among three nuns at a convent next to the Miskinta church who have refused to leave Mosul. They care for 27 orphan girls and reach out to Muslims and Christians alike.
â€œWe are like the rest of the people,â€ she said. â€œWe will remain until they all leave. The poor need us.â€
In his homily on Thursday, Father Fatouhi compared Jesus to a flame that continued to â€œwarm the heartsâ€ of the faithful during difficult and trying times