Baghdad holds Christmas celebrations out of respect for Iraq’s persecuted Christian community

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A volunteer wearing a Santa suit distributes presents to children at a poor community in Najaf, south of Baghdad.
Photo: A volunteer wearing a Santa suit distributes presents to children at a poor community in Najaf, south of Baghdad. (Reuters: Alaa Al-Marjani)
Map: Iraq
With Christmas falling this year a day after Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, the city of Baghdad is holding Christmas celebrations in a sign of brotherhood with Iraq’s hard-pressed Christian community.

Fireworks will illuminate the Tigris river every night of the week and a 25-metre Christmas tree has been set up in Zawraa public park.

In Zayuna camp, in the east of the city, children listened to Christmas carols and danced with Santa Claus to Iraqi songs.

But, though grateful, many Christians say the gesture comes too late to improve their lot in Iraq, their homeland for nearly 2,000 years, but where Islamic State is making their future increasingly bleak.

“I saw some nice gestures from many people on Facebook and this made me happy, to be honest, that people are celebrating Christmas together with us in defiance of Daesh,” said Mariam, a 29-year-old school teacher in Baghdad, referring to Islamic State (IS).

“But is it real? I don’t think so,” she said.

“Christians who left Iraq don’t wish to return and some of them are even nagging us to leave, saying that even if we make it through this ordeal, the next one will be the end of it,” she added.

Islamic State, which swept through a third of Iraq in 2014 in its drive to build a caliphate, has displaced more than 200,000 Christians from the northern region of Nineveh, the cradle of the eastern Assyrian church, according to Iraqi Christian MP Imad Yohana.

While the persecution by IS is the worst since the modern Iraqi state was created in the last century, scores of Christians have been kidnapped or killed, or had their churches bombed and been forced to leave their homes since 2004.

Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from 1.3 million people in the 1997 census to about 650,000 now, said Mr Yohana. Their number ought to have been around 2 million by now under normal circumstances, he said.

Western countries make it easier for Christians in the Middle East to obtain visas on human rights grounds, unwittingly contributing to depletion of their numbers, he said.

The Women of Baghdad Association, a multi-religious organisation focused on fighting abuse against women, on Wednesday organised a gift distribution in Zayuna camp, where the children listened to a Christmas carol service.

“Christmas is in our hearts religiously, but I am depressed because it is not the same socially,” said Said Jalal, 31, a volunteer worker at the camp.

“Most of my family and acquaintances are either displaced or have left.”