Xia-Maria Mackay A Christian woman inspects a home in the town of Bartella east of Mosul, Iraq, after it was liberated from Islamic State militants, November 23, 2016.Reuters
In the UK, in spite of creeping secularism, Christmas remains a nationwide celebration, with towns and cities alight, nativities in schools, church carol concerts and panto throughout the festive season.
But in Iraq, where Christians are a persecuted minority, celebrating the birth of Jesus is a dangerous time and even more so this year because of deadly protests against the government.
A pastor in the Chaldean Catholic Church and local partner of Open Doors UK, who cannot be named for security reasons, told Christian Today that this year, his church is holding Mass as usual but there are “no celebrations or parties”.
While much of the British media has focused on the protests in Hong Kong, Iraq has also been beset by protests – and the death toll has soared. Over 500 people have been killed so far and there are reports of disappearances.
Week after week, Iraqis have been going to Baghdad’s Liberation Square to protest against government corruption and call for a complete overhaul of the system.
The pastor tells Christian Today that he is not sure who is behind the killings but that there are many gangs and militias in Baghdad, an unwelcome successor to the Islamic State who have been largely pushed out of the country.
As a result of the latest upheaval and the staggering death toll, Christmas, with the exception of Mass, has been effectively “cancelled” by the Church this year.
“Because so many people have been killed, we want to stand in solidarity with them and we want to pray with them,” he said.
But the Church isn’t just standing on the sidelines praying. Churchgoers have been taking part in the protests because the Church supports the call for a new constitution.
The pastor has been standing side by side with the protesters in Liberation Square, something he admits is dangerous for him as a Christian.
But it’s important to “bring a message of support”, he said.
“It’s very dangerous for people to participate in these protests, for me in particular as a church leader.
“But it is a national issue. We have been speaking about changing our country for many years but there has been no response from the government or those in power. So we have to participate and support.”
He added: “I don’t call these a demonstration or protest, I call it a revolution, because almost all Iraqis want to change our country.”
The Church has also been giving practical support to the protesters, including food, clothing, medicine and financial assistance.
Over the festive season, instead of parties and celebrations, the church has been running a collection for money, food and clothing to give to the protesters “as a Christmas gift for them”.
While being a Christian in Iraq is not easy, he says that the protesters have made them feel “very welcome because they want to say, we are all of us Iraqis, we don’t need to distinguish between Muslim or Christian, we are all Iraqis.”
The pastor used to live in Mosul but was forced to flee when the Islamic State took over. He was given four options: to convert to Islam, pay tax, leave or be killed. He chose to leave.
Things have improved in Mosul and many Christians have now returned, but the pastor remains in Baghdad to lead a church there.
He is praying that those in power will heed the message of the protesters and change the constitution to protect human rights and religious freedom.
He is also desperate to see Iraq finally become a stable country after all these years because he fears that without this, the few Christians that are left will leave.
“We want the country to respect its citizens as humans regardless of their religion, ethnicity or anything else,” he said.
“Respect our rights and have a constitution that treats Christians as equal citizens, not as second class citizens.
“And we need our country to be stable and rebuilt again because if this doesn’t happen, many people will leave, not only minorities.”
He continued: “The majority of Iraqi Christians are now in the US, Europe or other parts of the world. The ones that are still in Iraq, many of them actually do want to stay, but at the same time, they want to leave because of the difficulties.
“Those who are already elsewhere really want to see Iraq become a stable country because they want to be able to come back here again.”
He added: “What we want to say to other Christians is: stay here, don’t leave.”
As a Christian determined to stay in Iraq despite the challenges, the pastor is going to continue doing what he has always been doing – pastoring his flock, serving his community and praying for his country.
But he is asking Christians everywhere to remember Iraq and Iraqi Christians in their prayers, and also to speak up for them.
“Pray for us every day, we really need your prayers,” he said.
“But also, please raise our voice to the whole world. We need the support of the whole world because the situation here is still terrible and we need the suport of all humanity.
“We want to live with dignity and we want to live in freedom. It is our right to live with dignity and freedom.”