At Christmas, Iraq Christians eye uncertain future

By Missy Ryan

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Rushing to Christmas mass, Iraqis in their Sunday best hurried into Baghdad’s Sacred Heart church, pausing just long enough so a uniformed security guard could pat them down for suicide vests or dangerous weapons.

The juxtaposition of faith and fear is one that resonates across Iraq, where as violence drops people are cautiously venturing out from homes bunkered by blast walls and sand bags and taking up activities abandoned during years of bloodshed.

Christians, who with Yazidis, Shabaks and others make up Iraq’s fragile minorities, marked perhaps their safest Christmas since 2003 on Thursday, but many still talk of a precarious future in a nation at risk of backsliding into civil war.

Iraqi Christians, believed to number around 750,000, have been targeted like others in Iraq’s 28-million, mainly Muslim population by the horrific violence since the 2003 invasion. Their plight often gains heightened attention in the West.

Reliable figures are hard to find on how many Christians are among the millions who have fled the country, but some Christian leaders warn of a threat to the existence for their community.

A series of high-profile attacks against Christians in the northern city of Mosul this fall prompted the flight of thousands of families and fuelled a fear of being singled out.

“Christians have no political ambitions and they don’t have militias to defend themselves. They are peaceful people,” Thaier al-Sheikh, the pastor of the Sacred Heart church, said as he sipped tea in his rectory.

“Christians have been here longer than Muslims, 600 years longer. We are the roots of Iraq,” he said.

“We want to live in this country; we don’t want anything else. But we want to live peacefully … Unfortunately, today we have the impression that Christians have no future in Iraq,” he said, standing before he donned his gold-trimmed clerical robes.


Suspicions that religious minorities had no future in Shi’ite Muslim-led Iraq were aggravated in November by parliament’s decision to give minorities just six out of 440 local government seats in provincial elections next month.

Christians were set aside three seats nationally, with only one in Baghdad — too few in the eyes of many Christians.

The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had sought a greater share of seats for minorities, but many Christians felt slighted when it approved the law with a smaller number anyway.

Like all Iraqis, Christians in Iraq have varying views on the durability of the growing security and the nation’s future.

Amira Daoud, a housewife dressed in smart suede boots and a fur-trimmed jacket, was relieved that the number of bombings and attacks has slowed over the past year.

Yet she takes a practical approach to her daily life: “Of course, there’s still kidnapping. Everyone says to themselves that this could be their day. So we take precautions.”

The displacement of Christians was one reason that attendance at the Sacred Heart church is still a fraction of what it was before 2003, Sheikh said.

With mass underway, hymns waft out of the plain concrete building topped by a simple dome.

Inside, parishioners young and old are packed in pews before an altar garlanded by flowers and lit by softly twinkling lights. Shiny angels dangle around a homemade nativity scene.

Despite the festive scenes, the city outside the church’s walls remains a violent place. Buildings are pocked with bullet holes; men with guns man checkpoints everywhere.

Across the city, in a Shi’ite Muslim area of western Baghdad, a car bomb near a popular restaurant killed four people and wounded 25 on Christmas morning.

Yet Peter Maqdusi insisted that Christians’ millenarian history here means they have no choice but to await a more stable, peaceful Iraq.

“We have made sacrifices and our ancestors have made sacrifices. This is our land,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami; Editing by Michael Christie)