By Sammy Ketz (AFP)
BAGHDAD â€” A senior Iraqi priest in his Christmas sermon on Friday urged Christians not to be intimidated by a string of deadly attacks against the minority community but warned they should not linger near churches.
Bishop Shlemon Warduni’s message to worshippers came as security forces ramped up their presence in cities with significant Christian populations in a bid to prevent violence.
“Do not be afraid,” said Warduni, the second-most-senior Chaldean bishop in Iraq.
“If we are alive, God is with us, and if they take away our lives, we will have eternal life. We must be brave, take fear from our hearts, and work and go on as before.”
He added, however, “I ask you not to gather in front of the church, but to go home.”
Warduni’s Church of Our Lady of Sacred Heart in the capital’s Al-Mohandiseen district, east Baghdad, was itself hit by a suicide car bomb on July 12 that killed four and wounded 21.
In the past six weeks, four Christians and three Muslims have been killed in a series of attacks against churches in the northern city of Mosul, where Iraq’s Christian minority have long been concentrated.
Though violence has dropped across the country, attacks remain frequent in Mosul, 350 kilometres (220 miles) north of the capital.
“If Baghdad seems safer the Mosul, it is just as dangerous to come here, but we cannot abandon our church during Christmas,” said Aamer Gurial, a 45-year-old microbiologist, at the Sacred Heart church.
Retired agricultural engineer Meero Barakat added that he had not wanted to attend the sermon out of fear, but his daughter had insisted.
“It is a sad Christmas because they attacked the house of God,” he said, standing in the still-damaged church.
“We are living in fear.”
Policemen stood guard at the entrance to the church and women’s bags were inspected as they walked in.
Baghdad’s Christian population has halved since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Barakat said, if he had the means, he too would have left the country.
Since the invasion, hundreds of Iraqi Christians have been killed and several churches attacked.
Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq in 2003, but their number has since shrunk by a third or more as members of the community have fled abroad, according to Christian leaders.
Safa Mansur, a 58-year-old dentist, tried his luck by leaving Iraq for Sweden but failed to win political asylum and had to return.
“Do you think it is a normal situation when your bishop says, ‘Merry Christmas and go home?’ May God help the government bring an end to the danger.”
In his sermon, Warduni called for God to “give wisdom to (Iraq’s) leaders so that they can restore security, and give reason to the world’s leaders to act in the interests of all people, not only their own.”
The sound of bells marking the end of Christmas mass were drowned out by the sounds of dozens of Shiite Muslim worshippers reciting verses from the Koran at the mosque across the street, magnified by loudspeakers directed at the church.
“We came, but many celebrations have been cancelled by the people who control us,” said 40-year-old civil servant Laila Faraj, pointing at the mosque.
In the southern port city of Basra, Chaldean Bishop Iman al-Banna has called on Christians to refrain from organising public celebrations, because of the proximity of Christmas to the Shiite commemoration ceremonies of Ashura.
“We have asked for them not to show their joy, not to celebrate the feast of the nativity publicly, and to not entertain guests, to show our respect for Muslims, especially Shiites, on the occasion of Muharram,” he said, according to a statement published Sunday.
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar.
Shiite Muslims will on Sunday mark the climax of 10-day rituals to commemorate Ashura, which marks the killing of Shiite Imam Hussein by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.