As Christians across the world mark the Christmas holiday, many of their brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been forced to flee their homelands, where Muslim extremists have them in their line of fire.
Threats issued by al-Qaeda against the Christian community in Iraq have forced celebrations to be called off in some parts of the country. The Chaldean Catholic archbishop, Monsignor Louis Sarko, announced this week the cancellation of festivities in Kirkuk, with the exception of daylight masses, out of â€œfearâ€ following threats by an al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.
The group claimed responsibility for an Oct. 31 attack on a cathedral in Baghdad in which 44 Christian worshippers, two priests and seven security-force personnel were killed. It was the single worst attack this year on Christians in the Middle East, the cradle of the religion with about 20 million followers out of a regional population of 356 million, according to the Vatican.
Last week the U.N. refugee agency said thousands of Iraqi Christians have taken flight since the Baghdad attack and that â€œchurches and NGOs are warning us to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks.â€ Amnesty International on Monday urged Iraqâ€™s government to step up protection of Christians â€œfrom an expected spike in violent attacks as they prepare to celebrate Christmas.â€
Egyptâ€™s Copts, members of the Middle Eastâ€™s largest Christian community, are wary due to the killing of six of their number last year on the eve of their Christmas, which they mark Jan. 7. Sectarian tensions have risen in Egypt since November, when Muslims set fire to homes owned by the family of a Christian man rumored to have flirted with a Muslim girl.
In November, bloody clashes erupted in Cairo between Coptic protesters and police after authorities refused to let the Christian group turn a community center into a church. The rise of fundamentalist Islam, sectarian violence and the perception that they are kept out of senior public posts has exacerbated the Coptsâ€™ feeling of exclusion in Egypt.
Concerns for the regionâ€™s Christians have been repeatedly expressed at the Vatican and were echoed again this week in Christianityâ€™s holiest city, Jerusalem, in a somber pre-Christmas address.
Jerusalemâ€™s Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the regionâ€™s senior Catholic cleric, expressed concern Tuesday about the plight of followers in Iraq and the collapse of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Holy Land, meanwhile, prepared to mark Christmas on Friday in the heart of a region troubled by the massacre and exodus of Christians from Iraq as well as a stagnant peace process.
Christians from around the world â€“ including, for the first time, those from Arab countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel â€“ flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday in the West Bank city where Christ was born