- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

BAGHDAD — Iraqi children mobbed two American soldiers in Santa Claus hats as they handed out stuffed animals yesterday. Nearby, an Iraqi Christian woman sat in an otherwise-empty church, praying for peace.

While U.S. troops, buoyed by the capture of Saddam Hussein, gear up for big Christmas celebrations, the small community of Iraqi Christians is preparing for a low-key holiday, with many congregations postponing midnight services until daybreak because of the violence that still plagues the country.

The holiday brings mixed feelings for Iraq’s 700,000 Christians. There are prayers for a better future, but also some fears that if unrest continues, it could revive a flight of Christians, and other Iraqis, who left the country during the crippling economic sanctions of the 1990s.

During that time, the number of Christians fell from more than a million, as many left in search of better lives in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

As light rain fell outside yesterday, Nadal Salman, 44, sat alone in a 17th-century stone church, praying for peace. Before her was a large painted icon so weathered that the image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus barely could be seen.

The church is among those that will hold services Christmas morning instead of on Christmas Eve, as is customary. Worshippers have been told not to bring bags, for fear than an attacker will slip past with a bomb.

“The situation is not normal. It’s scary,” Mrs. Salman said, her face framed with a gold scarf. “But God is great, and the Virgin Mary is with the Iraqi people.”

Many families will not gather for big dinners to avoid having to return home on dangerous nighttime streets, further dampening the holiday, she said. Most Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Church, an ancient Eastern Rite Catholic Church.

On military bases around Iraq, meanwhile, coalition troops were getting ready for brass bands, turkey dinners, sports matches and Christmas carols. David Letterman, host of CBS’ “Late Show,” is to visit troops in Baghdad today.

Not far from where Mrs. Salman was praying, a pair of U.S. soldiers were mobbed by Iraqi children as they handed out toys. The neighborhood is home to thousands of Iraqis living on the edge of the walled compound in central Baghdad that houses the coalition’s headquarters.

Spc. Chad Wilkerson, 23, of Clarksville, Tenn., swapped his camouflage battle helmet for a red Santa hat as he carried a box of stuffed animals from a muddy Humvee. Dozens of children living in drab, rundown high-rise apartment buildings ran up to him. Others sped up on bicycles.

The four boxes of toys and candy — donated by a Christian radio station, WCIC-FM in Peoria, Ill. — were empty in minutes.

An 11-year-old boy, Fares Nadum, looked puzzled, then smiled as Spc. Wilkerson handed him a small, stuffed goat. Others in the crowd of mostly Muslims grabbed at the box, and Spc. Wilkerson appeared to sympathize with their wants after years of hardship.

“They don’t know how to handle generosity. They just attack,” Spc. Wilkerson said of the children. He said some of the children living in the compound seemed to be street orphans. “I pulled two kids out of the Dumpster one night,” he said.

“I don’t know if they understand we are doing this for Christmas, but I hope the kids understand the spirit of Christmas and generosity.”

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