Muted Christmas in Iraq

While millions of Christians celebrate, threats against Iraqi churches force the cancellation of celebrations.

    Iraq's Christian community have gathered despite continued threats, to mark Christmas in the same church where, less than two months ago, dozens of members of their community were killed in an attack.

    The walls of the church were marked with bullet holes, and plastic sheeting still covered the gaps where glass windows were shattered.

    "No matter how hard the storm blows, love will save us," Matti Shaba Matouka, an archbishop told his congregation.

    Photographs of the dead parishioners were placed in front of the altar, and two black cassocks hung from the walls, representing the two priests killed in the attack.

    Outside the building hung a homemade sign that said the church would prosper during times of oppression.

    Armed men had stormed the Our Lady of Salvation church in October, taking more than 120 people hostage in a siege that ended with 58 people dead.

    Days later, a string of bombings outside Christian homes and in Christian neighbourhoods had occurred.

    In the aftermath of that attack, Iraqi church officials cancelled many Christmas celebrations, like appearances by Santa Claus or evening mass. The toned down celebrations are being seen as a sign of respect for the suffering the community has undergone.

    Some parishioners said they had not bought a Christmas tree and felt little cause for joy on the holiday. Others said they were too afraid to even leave their homes much of the time.

    "Who can celebrate anything in church anymore? Even if they paint it, rebuild it, what's in the heart is in the heart, it can never go away," Suhaila Albert, a local churchgoer, said.

    Albert was leaving the city on Christmas eve to spend the holiday in northern Iraq.

    Others feel that the tragedy has strengthened their resolve to stay.

    "The church was baptised by the blood of the martyrs. It gave us more motivation to come to the church and to celebrate Christmas in spite of what has happened to us," said Laith Amir, another churchgoer.

    "I love my country. I buried my parents here. I can't leave it," said Adiba Youssef, a 52-year-old woman who came to the morning service with her family.

    "We believe in God, and he will protect us."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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