- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — At first glance, it seemed like Christmas at Bassem Khedhr’s home yesterday … a green tree with flickering lights stood in the living room, everyone wore new clothes, and the women baked holiday pastries.

But the hardships of daily life dampened the festivities. Mr. Khedhr missed Christmas morning Mass because he had to fix the generator for the house, and his mother was jolted awake in the morning by four explosions.

Security concerns ruled out past treats such as a visit to the amusement park. Mr. Khedhr has virtually banned pleasure trips of any kind for his family because of Baghdad’s violence and crime.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s Christmas,” said Mr. Khedhr, a 39-year-old electrical appliance repairman. “I bought this Christmas tree so that I could look at it and remember what Christmas felt like — only remember, not celebrate.”

Mr. Khedhr sat under oversized rosary beads that adorn a wall of the old, drab house he shares with 12 relatives. Mr. Khedhr and his family are Chaldeans, members of an Eastern-rite church that is loyal to the pope but does not follow the Roman Catholic Church’s rites.

Mr. Khedhr says his Christian community suffers from the same woes that trouble Iraqis from other religious and ethnic groups. But with thousands of Christians fleeing a country growing increasingly Islamic and conservative, his family feels a little more vulnerable this Christmas.

This year, the holiday comes at a time when the religious Shi’ite Muslim coalition that dominates the current government looks set to become the largest bloc in Iraq’s first full-term parliament since dictator Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003.

Mr. Khedhr said he refrained from voting for Christian tickets in the Dec. 15 elections because he thought the Christian community was too small to affect the results. In the Jan. 30 vote for an interim legislature, the main Christian slate won one of the 275 seats. This time, Mr. Khedhr voted for a coalition led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite.

“The Sunnis are backed by their tribes. So are the Shi’ites. But us Christians don’t have support, so I seek protection from a Shi’ite tribe,” he said.

Christians make up an estimated 3 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people. Thousands have fled Iraq since several churches were blown up by car bombs in August and September 2004.

Christmas was bittersweet for Mr. Khedhr’s wife, Sahera Eissa, 28. Her parents and all her relatives live outside Iraq. Some left under Saddam; others followed after the U.S.-led invasion.

Yesterday morning, she went out just once — to Christmas Mass at a nearby church.

“I wanted Mass to end quickly because I was afraid,” she said. “My children want to go out, but I am scared for them because of the explosions.”

She feels constrained by the city’s insecurity.

“I want to show off my new clothes, but there is no place to go,” she said, wearing black pants and a fiery red top with matching lipstick.

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