Few left to celebrate Christmas in Iraq

343981531.jpgBAGHDAD — Sajid Rasool Shakir sits on a busy street corner waiting for customers. Sometimes he waits for hours.

But that he’s open for business at all is a bit of a feat: Shakir sells Christmas trees.

Last year, he didn’t even bother. No one in the tiny Christian community was celebrating, and the streets were too dangerous to set up shop outdoors. Buoyed by the drop in violence in recent months, however, business owners this season are stocking their shelves with a full selection of holiday trimmings and setting up Christmas tree lots around the city.

“The situation is better now,” said Nadir Ganim Tawfeeq, an Iraqi Christian who stopped by Shakir’s Christmas tree lot Saturday. “That gives us hope for the future, so we celebrate. Last year, there were just gangs and explosions.”

Still, Shakir said, business hasn’t returned to prewar levels, when he sold 20 to 30 trees a day.

“Yesterday, I sold just four,” he said, surrounded by a couple dozen unsold firs. “I have some trees, so I decided to sell them. Then I will quit this job.”

Christians are estimated to make up less than 3% of Iraq’s 27 million residents, and even that number is diminishing. A report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 40% of the Iraqis who have fled the country during the war are Christian.

Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in Iraq for centuries, but after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, insurgents began targeting Christians.

Several churches were bombed in Baghdad, and a priest in the northern city of Mosul was kidnapped and later found beheaded. This year, Sunni Arab militants began knocking on doors of Christians living in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood, demanding that they pay a “tax,” convert to Islam or leave. In April and May alone, an estimated 500 families fled Dora.

Although Tawfeeq and his wife were shopping for a Christmas tree, they said they wouldn’t be gathering with extended relatives Tuesday. At least 10 of his family members have fled to Syria, Tawfeeq said. “It’s now just me and my wife and my children,” he said.

Businesses this season are feeling the effect of the exodus. One store owner who declined to give his name for safety reasons said that holiday business is up, but that is because Muslims are taking up the slack: snatching up Christmas lights, inflatable Santas and multicolored garlands.

“Some of the educated people know the story of Santa Claus,” said the shop owner, who owns a toy and trinket store in the Karada neighborhood. “Most consider Santa Claus a source of joy for the children. They know that he comes from the chimney. They know that because of the American movies.”

The city has been unusually quiet during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, with families taking advantage of the festivities to get out of their homes to shop and visit parks.

Despite the relative calm, however, reminders of the violence continued Saturday. Four people died and six were injured when a bomb exploded near a checkpoint in the Shiite neighborhood of Ghazaliya in west Baghdad.

The U.S. military reported that one American soldier was killed and 11 others wounded when two bombs exploded near their vehicles in Kirkuk on Friday. The soldier’s name was not released.