By Nafa Abdul Jabbar (AFP)
BAGHDAD â€” Faced with renewed threats by Al-Qaeda and still mourning a church massacre, Christmas for Iraq’s Christian community will this year be a time of fear and cancelled celebrations rather than rejoicing.
The Council of Churches in Iraq has asked the faithful to limit Christmas celebrations “to a spiritual feast of participating in mass, for reasons of caution and sadness,” said Shlimun Warduni, the Chaldean bishop of Baghdad.
A pall of gloom has descended on Iraq’s badly-battered Christian community since gunmen on October 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad and began firing on worshippers.
Iraqi forces stormed the building to end what turned into a hostage situation and by the end of the operation 44 Christian worshippers, two priests and seven security forces personnel lay dead.
The attack was later claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq, which also threatened further attacks on Christians.
Ten days later a string of attacks targeted the homes of Christians in Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 others.
Rights group Amnesty International has called on Iraq “to do more to protect the country’s Christian minority from an expected spike in violent attacks as they prepare to celebrate Christmas.”
With Christmas just two days away, our Lady of Salvation carries an air of mourning rather than festivity, and its interior remains scarred more than a month after the attack.
Instead of Christmas decorations, the front of the sanctuary holds a banner picturing the two priests and the worshippers killed in the attack framing an image of a bloodied Jesus on the cross, while individual pictures of victims sit below.
“Christmas was a big feast we used to celebrate each year… with relatives and friends,” said Farqad Assad, a member of the church who had come along with her husband and two young children to pray for those killed in the attack.
But this year, “we can’t be happy like we used to be each year,” the 28-year-old doctor said.
“There is fear — we can’t go out and take our kids somewhere freely, while the threats against Christians are still there,” she said.
“This year Christmas will be mixed with the sadness of our church losing Father Waseem and Father Thair” and the members of the congregation, said Father Mukhlas Qariaqosh Shesha, a priest at Our Lady of Salvation.
“The church used to be decorated — there used to a tree and all the trappings of celebration,” he said. But “this year, we will not do any of these things in order to save ourselves” from attacks.
Yusef Mohammed, 53, who owns the Birds of Paradise flower shop in the Mansour area of Baghdad, said Christmas tree sales are far lower than in past years.
“We used to provide 200 to 300 trees for this occasion each year. But this year we didn’t even sell 10 trees,” he said.
In the disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk, threats against Christians caused Christmas celebrations to be called off.
“The Christians of Kirkuk will not celebrate the feast of Christmas this year, except for masses, which will not be held at night but at 10 am after myself and 10 other Christian personages received threats from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq,” Chaldean Catholic archbishop Monsignor Louis Sarko said.
“I fear that Christians will be targeted, which is why all ceremonies have been cancelled.”
Celebrations in the ethnically and religiously diverse, unrest-prone north Iraq city of Mosul have also been limited to churches.
“This year, we will only hold the religious ceremony at the churches” of Mosul, said Father Kamel, a priest at a church in the city, asking not to be further identified out of fear of attack.
“How can a mother celebrate a feast while her son was killed by the enemies of this country; how can we have a feast while my grandsons are crying for their father?” said Mariam Daniel, 57, a housewife in the city.
“Where is the feast when I see the tears in the eyes of my daughter-in-law and her loneliness which was caused by hands covered with the blood of innocents?”
Daniel’s son, a 22-year-old college student who was married with two children, was killed by gunmen three months ago near her house.
Celebrations in the southern city of Basra have also been called off.
“A statement from the Basra Churches Council was issued to cancel all the celebration ceremonies for Christmas,” said Saad Matti, a 40-year-old Christian member of the Basra provincial council.
Only prayers and mass will be held, he said, out of respect for “our martyrs who were killed in the attacks against Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.”