Christmas returns to Baghdad

santa-baghdad-460_1210025c1.jpgThe security success of the ‘surge’ in troops in Baghdad is allowing the city’s Christians to celebrate their holy season with the open joy of times past.

By Tim Albone in Baghdad
 Some Christian leaders estimate that only 100,000 Christians still live in Iraq – a huge decline from the pre-invasion level of 800,000 Photo: AFP
Before 2003, Iraq’s Christian population, which makes up around three per cent of the 27 million people in the country, lived in peaceful co-existence with the majority Muslim population. As sectarian murders and violence drove Iraq towards civil war the Christian community became a target, and tens of thousands fled the country.

But for those who braved the violence to remain in their homes, this Christmas promises better things.

Manhal Hana, a 48-year-old engineering lecturer, was out shopping for a Christmas tree with his wife and two sons. A year ago buying a Christmas tree could have cost them their lives. Crossing the militia checkpoints that stud the roads around their family home in Baghdad, the telltale pine needles would have betrayed his religious identity to militant Muslims intent on purifying the district of non-believers.

“Jesus taught us peace and love, no fighting and no violence, people have to love each other,” said Mr Hana. “We couldn’t come to this area last year, it was too dangerous.”

Johnson al-Warda, 32, a Christian shopkeeper in Karadah district, one of the safest neighbourhoods in the capital, was doing a brisk trade.

At between $120 (£80) and $260 (£175), the plastic Christmas trees he sold from boxes marked “Tesco” were anything but cheap. “Sales have been good,” he said.

His increased profits were in large part due to the greater security brought by the “surge” of US troops into the country over the past year and the political deals struck with rebellious Sunni tribes.

Now at least some of Baghdad’s Christians are taking their first tentative steps back to normality – but in the knowledge that many of their friends have left forever.

Some Christian leaders estimate that only 100,000 Christians still live in the country – a huge decline from the pre-invasion level of 800,000.

“Yes, we have faced al-Qaeda … but all of my friends have left Iraq,” said Mr Warda.

Despite the improvements, Yonadam Kanna, Iraq’s only Christian MP, warned that for many Christians living outside of Baghdad’s safer areas, the situation is still dangerous.

“They still can’t practice [their religion]. They are still scared,” he said.

“Like all Iraqis they are still suffering … but they hope.”