Greatest gift for Iraqi Christians — returning home

442352551.jpgPhotos: Christmas in Iraq
Hundreds of families are returning from exile. Security has improved and worshipers at Christmas services hope for peace. But violence is never far away.
By Kimi Yoshino and Ali Hameed

Reporting from Baghdad — Three years ago, a note appeared at Lita Kaseer’s door. It contained a bullet and a one-word message: “Leave.”

Kaseer fled, along with hundreds of other Christian families in the Dora neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, once a vibrant Christian community.

This year, she returned home from Syria, and on Thursday, attended Christmas Mass with her husband and 7-month-old son.

“It’s always better to come home,” said her husband, Khalid Kamil, 34. “In any other place, you are a stranger. . . . This is not the way our life should be.”

Hundreds of Christians gathered to celebrate Christmas in Baghdad, most acknowledging that improved security conditions have allowed them to move more freely throughout the city after returning from years-long exiles in Syria, Egypt, Jordan or Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

In the Christian neighborhood of Karada on Thursday, a Santa Claus handed out religious CDs and pamphlets, including “25 Stories From the Bible” and “The Greatest Gift.” In recent years, such an act could have resulted in death.

Christians are estimated to make up less than 3% of Iraq’s population of 27 million, and some reports say that about half fled after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country.

On Thursday, at least 600 holiday worshipers packed the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in the Karada neighborhood, where a flashing red-and-gold Christmas tree adorned the altar.

Women came with their hair uncovered and were dressed in their holiday finest — festive red sweaters and skirts, bejeweled jeans and knee-high lace-up boots.

Father Boutros Haddad, the church’s priest, said he hadn’t seen so many worshipers in years.

“It’s been a long time since we felt happy like now,” Haddad said. “We are happy for peace. We are not happy only for Christians, we feel happy for the Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans. We feel happy for everybody in Iraq because we are brothers. Let us pray for peace.”

For the first time in memory, the Iraqi government declared Christmas a national holiday. And last week, a community event was held at a park to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Large posters depicting a portrait of Jesus and a Christmas tree could be spotted around town.

“As Christians, we feel like we have a real presence in Iraq, and rights,” said Lena Ayat, 19.

“I feel safer,” agreed her mother, Lameya Mashreq. “We are free to choose the clothes that we wear.”

Randa Nahidh, 40, emerged from the hourlong Mass, which included the singing of traditional carols, and remarked on the change since last Christmas, when attendance was sparse.

“I was very surprised this year,” Nahidh said. “I was very happy because the church was full. It was a beautiful service. There’s nothing like the homeland. . . . No one likes to live in exile.”

Not that conditions are now ideal throughout Iraq.

In northwest Baghdad, a car bomb exploded Thursday near a popular restaurant, killing four people and injuring 25.

In Diyala province, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, a suicide car bomber targeted an American patrol convoy in front of the Muqdadiya police station. Three civilians were killed and 14 people were injured, including four Iraqi police officers, authorities said.

In the northern city of Mosul, Christians celebrated quietly, fearing violence. More than 900 Christian families fled the city as recently as October after attacks by Sunni Arab militants.

Issa Zakariya, 55, said he missed the days when Christians in Mosul could celebrate in peace.

“Years ago, we were spending Christmas congratulating our friends and relatives in Mosul, but today everything has changed,” Zakariya said. “But despite all that, the flavor of Christmas still exists and the dream of Santa still exists in the hearts of the children. I just hope peace and safety come back to Iraq.”

Samir Yusef said he and his wife finally returned to their home in Baghdad’s Dora district three months ago after being displaced for two years. About 30% of the Christian families have returned to the neighborhood, he said. Although it is safer, Dora remains difficult to maneuver because of roadblocks and security checkpoints, and more improvement is needed, he said.

A group of Muslim women, garbed from head to toe in their black abayas, stuck out among the crowd at the Baghdad church, sitting together in one pew. Zahara Abdulwahid Issa said she came to make a special Christmas wish this year.

“I was pleading with the Virgin Mary so that my three daughters will get married,” Issa said. “I brought flowers and if they get married, I will come back again.”

Issa said she was moved by the Mass.

“I was here during the whole time and my body had shivers from the chorus and the prayers,” she said. “Until now, I still have the shivers.”

A Times staff writer in Mosul contributed to this report,0,3317210.story