Friday, December 24, 2004

BAGHDAD — Huddled with his family around a kerosene heater, Sirab Suleyman, a 28-year-old Iraqi Christian, retreats into memories of Christmases past.

Before the church bombings, the threats against Christian businesses and the gathering exodus of Iraq’s Christian minority, there was a time when Mr. Suleyman and his Muslim friends used to spend Christmas caroling in the streets, laughing and hollering.

“Before the war, Muslims and Christians used to celebrate Christmas together,” he said as he rubbed his hands for warmth in his modest living room. “Muslims used to visit their Christian friends and greet them. It was a true celebration. That’s over now.”

For Iraq’s Christians, this holiday season may well be remembered as the grimmest ever, the year when militant Islamist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi became the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Many of Iraq’s churches have canceled Christmas Mass or rescheduled it for the morning or early afternoon, for fear of drawing the attention of terrorists. Gift shops that once festooned their windows with Christmas decorations have hidden decorations inside, as if they were peddling contraband.

Unlike Christmases past, there are few signs of the holiday. Most Iraqi Christians — which include Chaldeans with allegiance to the pope as well as Assyrians, Armenians and other small denominations — have moved their lights and decorations indoors, for fear of attacks like the ones that struck Iraqi churches in August and October.

Many Iraqi Christians say they’re terrified to attend Christmas Mass this year.

“I’m afraid of car bombs,” said Dinkha al-Dawoudi, a 48-year-old hotel receptionist and father of two. “The spirit of Christmas has really been affected by the security conditions. There is no joy in Christmas.”

Extremist Muslim groups have targeted Iraqi churches and businesses as part of their battle against the U.S.-led occupation forces. Iraqi Christians find this especially upsetting. Many Christians insist they are Arab nationalists who oppose the American presence just as much as resistance fighters in Fallujah or Mosul.

“It’s true that the Americans are Christians and we are Christians. But they should not associate us with them. All the Christians want the Americans to get out and the occupation to end. Nobody is with the Americans,” said Father Gabriel Shamami, who leads the St. George’s Church in Baghdad.

Among Iraq’s 700,000 Christians, fear and depression are palpable. As many as 10 percent of Iraqi Christians have left the country since the war last year, with more applying for visas to get out.

Sister Beninia Hermes Shoukwana, a Christian nun who heads a public school near Baghdad’s Palestine Street, has stubbornly refused to bow to the extremists.

She’s put up Christmas trees at her school and gotten her students to sing holiday songs. She’ll attend Christmas Mass at her convent.

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