Iraqi Chaldean Christians held their first Catholic mass in seven months at St John
the Baptist church in Baghdad in November 2007 [GALLO/GETTY]

Rita and Maria Farid, two Iraqi Christians living in the central Baghdad district of Karrada, did not want to celebrate Christmas this year and only bought a tree at the last minute.

"Christmas is very difficult for us. It's a time for family and friends, and this year for the first time, our family is incomplete," Maria Farid said.

In early May, Majid Farid, their brother, was killed in a car bomb blast as he walked to a currency exchange centre not far from the family home.

"He was going to convert Iraqi dinars to dollars to go to Jordan and meet a lovely Iraqi woman he had hoped to marry," Maria recalled.

"We knew something had happened to him immediately. I tried calling him on his mobile phone, but I couldn't get through and I just knew."

Rita and Maria sit with their backs to the small, plastic Christmas tree which has been relegated from the centre of the family room, to an unobtrusive corner near the door.

"We didn't even want to put up a tree," Rita says quietly. "But we did not want to depress relatives and friends and remind them constantly of that terrible day we lost Majid."

The Farid family is one of the relatively few Iraqi Armenian families remaining in the predominantly Shia area of Karrada. They moved from Basra to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-1980s due to heavy bombing in southern Iraq.

Although most Iraqi Armenians observe Christmas on January 6, Maria's mother is Chaldean Catholic.

She said: "In past years, we'd go to the church on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day visiting friends and family and attending Christmas parties. Then in January we'd have our personal family Christmas, sitting around our tree and exchanging gifts."

Christmas past

In San Diego, California, Jennifer Hanna, 53, also a Chaldean Christian from Karrada, prepares to celebrate this Christmas with her husband and three children.

She said: "Celebrating in San Diego reminds me of the days I celebrated Christmas with my family in Iraq, before I moved to America.

"We would go to church and celebrate Christmas festivities in our communities among our Muslim neighbours."

Hanna said her family would serve delicious homemade Iraqi sweets to their Christmas visitors, just as she will this year, but jokes about how she now buys her sweets from the many Iraqi bakeries sprinkled around San Diego.

Hanna's tone changes to sombre as she explains that many Christians are fleeing their homes in Iraq to escape the dangers of "the extremist outsiders who are creating fear and terror among the Christian communities in Iraq".

Hanna said: "My brother and his wife moved to Jordan to escape the violence and it is their Muslim neighbours who are protecting their home in Iraq now.

"Iraqis have got along and this is what I experienced when I lived in Iraq. My best friend who I would have sleepovers with was Shia."

According to figures compiled by the Chaldean Federation of America (CFA), which provides humanitarian relief for displaced Chaldeans in and outside Iraq, 1.2 million Iraqi Christians practiced their faith without fear of persecution before the March 2003 US invasion.

Targeting Christians

Sectarian violence and religious persecution have forced an exodus of Christians to neighbouring countries, with the CFA saying only about 300,000 remain, many of whom are displaced within northern Iraq.

However, the numbers significantly jumped since the June 2007 killing of Father Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest, and three sub-deacons who were with him, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The corpses were then rigged with explosives.

Though he had been threatened numerous times and his Holy Spirit parish attacked, Ganni had refused to leave the country.

Ganni's death followed a trend of assassinations and kidnappings targeting the Christian community which began following the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003.

On August 2, 2004, more than a dozen Christian worshippers were killed when five Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean churches came under co-ordinated attacks in the capital Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

Nine other churches were attacked before the end of the year.

Christian merchants who sold alcohol or music tapes and CDs were kidnapped and killed, their shops firebombed for "corrupting Islamic society".

Iraq's Christian heritage

In 2006, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned that religiously motivated attacks signalled "an exodus that may mean the end of the presence in Iraq of ancient Christian and other communities that have lived on those same lands for 2,000 years".

The CFA says an estimated 20 percent of Iraqi refugees seeking asylum around the world in 2007 were Christian.

Despite the violence and targeting of the Christian communities in Iraq, Joseph Kassab, executive director of the CFA, said he does not encourage Iraqi Chaldeans to leave Iraq because it is their homeland.

But he acknowledged: "If there is any Christmas celebration in Iraq today, it's a very passive one and quiet one, to say the least."

Alice Marogil, an Iraqi Assyrian married to an Iraqi Chaldean, who left Iraq in 1976, is a social worker with the Chicago-based Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries.

She has worked with at least one hundred Iraqi refugees of both Christian and Islamic faiths in the US.

While she acknowledges that Iraqis once celebrated Christian and Islamic holidays together, she believes as long as extremist militias and foreign terrorists stay in Iraq there will never be an end to the violence.

She said: "I do not see any light at the end of this tunnel. It's a very, very dark one.

"As long as there is no strong leader and government that knows how to take control, the chaos and terror will go on and on. You will see."

Source: Al Jazeera