By Ahmed Rasheed / Reuters
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Here’s what Karrar Haider, a 10-year-old Shi’ite boy at a school in eastern Baghdad, told Santa he wants this year for the holidays:
“I have one wish to ask Santa Claus. Please bring peace to my country. Stop the bombs so I can play with my friends again.”
Santa — who spends the rest of the year disguised as a 48-year-old Chaldean Christian monastery administrator named Jalal Hourmoz — said he was delighted to spread joy after two years when sectarian violence made a merry Christmas impossible.
“I stopped wearing the costume for two years. I was afraid of death. But this year it’s a bit safer. So I’m back, to celebrate both Christmas and Eid,” he said of the Christian and Muslim holidays that this year fall less than a week apart.
“I feel so happy to bring a smile to the faces of the children. They’ve suffered a lot and they deserve more than a guy wearing a Santa Claus costume with some simple gifts.
“I want to tell the world that Christians and Muslims in Iraq are brothers as we used to be before.”
During the darkest days of Iraq’s sectarian conflict, teaching respect for all faiths was a dangerous business. But at the al-Abtikar school in eastern Baghdad, it is a way of life.
The school is run by nuns from Iraq’s small Chaldean Christian community, but most of its pupils are Muslims, a mixture of Shi’ites and Sunnis.
The nuns managed to keep the arrival of Santa Claus a secret from the 2,800 pupils until he showed up in his red suit and white shaggy beard, ringing a bell and passing out small toys.
Pupils ran outside, screaming with joy.
“We never differentiate between the students: Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites are all equal. Our message is to offer education for all, with no exception,” said Sister Ghufran Nayif, the school’s principal.
To her, the coincidence that the Christian and Muslim holidays fall at the same time this year is a blessing.
“It’s a sign from the holy God that we are all his creation, we should hold fast and nothing should divide us.” she said.
“Children are living through daily suffering of violence, and we celebrate both happy occasions to draw a smile to their faces and tell them there is still hope in this life.”
Or, as Rusul Mohammed, 14, a Muslim girl, explained the school’s philosophy: “Today we are celebrating with our Christian brothers both Christmas and Muslim Eid.
“My wish is to live in peace all together,” she said.