Undeterred by war, Santa Claus is coming to Kurdistan

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By Rudaw
The Ainkawa Royal Hotel warns parents through its website to remember Santa.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The war with ISIS may be keeping some tourists out, but it’s not enough to stop Santa Claus from coming to the Kurdistan Region.

Turkey and a Christmas buffet are on the menu at the Royal Ainkawa Hotel in Erbil; the luxury Erbil Rotana promises “prizes and surprises.” And a visit by Santa is promised at those and other hotels in Kurdistan.

This is the enclave in northern Iraq where some five million Kurds are tied to Iraq on the map, but a world away in how they practice their Sunni Muslim religion – or how they let Christians and others practice theirs.

To the north the Kurdistan Region’s own Peshmerga forces face ISIS across a lengthy border that is more than 1,000 kilometers long, dotted with dozens of Christian towns, villages and hamlets where ISIS has tried to scratch out some of the oldest footsteps of Christianity.

To the south is the rest of Iraq, where the Christian community has become decimated by migration and killing, since getting caught in the crossfire of the sectarian Shiite-Sunni fighting and becoming targets of al-Qaeda attacks since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

This year, with Christmas falling two days after the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government held Christmas celebrations in a sign of brotherhood with Christians.

For six nights, there are fireworks illuminating the Tigris river that cuts across Baghdad, and a 25-meter Christmas tree adorns the 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 many for whom the events were staged – Baghdad’s Christians – have moved on, either taking shelter in the Kurdistan region or going abroad.

Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from 1.3 million people in the 1997 census to about 650,000 now, according to community officials in Iraq.

By some estimates, 95 percent of Iraq’s Christians now shelter in the Kurdistan Region, whose own population of five million remains hospitable but straining under the economic strains of some 2 million refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Here, Muslims, Christians and Yezidis – another religious community devastated by ISIS – worship freely, as do others.

This Christmas in Ainkawa, Erbil’s traditionally Christian quarter, the Royal Hotel warns forgetful parents through its website not to forget that “Our Santa awaits your kids.”

The Rotana is offering “lavish international buffets in a unique festive ambiance with talented Christmas carol singers that are responsible to entice your night.”

And its website promises to have Santa doing the Salsa on the dance floor with its “Latin American Band.”

But this has been a year of war for Iraq’s Kurds, who are holding up one of the most important frontlines in a conflict that is a World War in all but name alone.

Since ISIS attacked Erbil in 2014 and pulled the Kurds into the war, more than 1,300 Peshmerga have died defending the frontlines, and over 5,000 have been wounded. Some have been Christians.

Ewed Qais Nheli, the only Christian Peshmerga to hold the rank of brigadier, told Rudaw this month that there had been dozens of Christian dead and hundreds wounded among the Peshmerga.

Due to that reason, says the Dohuk Sheraton in Kurdistan’s third-largest city Christmas celebrations this year will be more somber.

“Dear friends,” the hotel announces on its website: “With our deepest respect and heartfelt compassion to the entire Kurdistan region and especially to the Peshmerga fighters that had sacrificed their lives for their country please kindly be informed that a large scale Christmas and New Year’s Eve event will not be organized.