By YAHYA BARZANJI and SAMEER N. YACOUB
KIRKUK, Iraq — Iraqi Christians on Wednesday called off Christmas festivities in three cities across the country as al-Qaida insurgents threatened more attacks on a beleaguered community still terrified from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church.
Church officials in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul along with the southern city of Basra said they will not put up Christmas decorations, have canceled evening Mass and urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus has been called off.
“Nobody can ignore the threats of al-Qaida against Iraqi Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. “We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak.”
Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since a Baghdad church attack in October that left 68 people dead. Days later insurgents targeted Christian homes and neighborhoods across the capital with a series of bombs.
An al-Qaida front group that claimed responsibility for the church siege vowed at the time to carry out a reign of terror against Christians.
The Islamic State of Iraq renewed its threats in a message posted late Tuesday on a website frequented by Islamic extremists. The group said it wants two women it claims are being held captive by Egypt’s Coptic Church to be released.
Muslim extremists in Egypt say the church has detained the women for allegedly converting to Islam. The church denies the allegations but extremists in Iraq have latched onto the issue. The message Tuesday was addressed to Iraq’s Christian community and said it was designed to “pressure” Egypt.
Since the deadly church siege, the U.N. estimates some 1,000 Christian families fled to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq which is generally much safer.
For those who remain, this Christmas will be a subdued affair.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Sako said church officials will not put up Christmas decorations outside the church and urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes.
A traditional Santa Claus appearance outside one of the city’s churches has also been called off, he said.
In Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Syrian Orthodox priest Faiz Wadee said there will be no public Christmas celebrations there either.
Christians in Iraq’s second-largest city of Basra, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad decided to cancel all celebrations. Saad Matti, a Christian legislator on the Basra provincial council, said the decision was made out of respect for the victims of the Our Lady of Salvation church siege and because of the al-Qaida threats.
“There will be only small Mass in one church in Basra without any signs of joy or decoration and under the protection of Iraqi security forces,” he said. “We are fully aware of al-Qaida threats.”
Yacoub reported from Amman, Jordan; Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.