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Iraqis of all religions getting into spirit of Christmas

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Majed Abbas tore the packaging off his new fur-trimmed red suit and ran his fingers through the snow-white beard that will complete his transformation into "Baba Noel," Arabic for "Father Christmas."

An unlikely Santa, the 40-year-old Abbas is a devout Muslim father of two with a neat black mustache and slender build. In the past, he conceded, he probably wouldn't have loaded up on cheap tinsel, aerosol cans of fake snow and toys to place under the tiny tree in his family's Baghdad home. But there's been so little to celebrate lately, he said, that Christmas in Iraq isn't just for the country's Christian minority this year.

"We are thirsty for parties, thirsty for happiness," Abbas said. "We want this dark period gone."

Abbas is happily joining thousands of Iraqis—Muslims and Christians alike—in spending precious dinars on holiday decorations that twinkle and chime from storefronts across the Iraqi capital. Inflatable Santas, red-and-green candles, silver bells and even stockings are available in quantities unseen before postwar entrepreneurs seized on the chance to sell a little Christmas cheer.

The season's religious importance isn't lost on Iraqis, either. For Muslims, Eid al Milad—Holiday of the Birth—marks the coming of a beloved prophet in Islam, Jesus. Iraq's estimated 1 million Christians, meanwhile, pray to Jesus to end the bombings, mile-long gas lines and unemployment that have plagued the nation since the U.S.-led war ended last spring.

"We recognize that this is mainly a Christian holiday," said Sahera Kamal, a 44-year-old Muslim who was buying gifts for her three sons. "But we've all been under pressure. We've all had hardships. So now, we all celebrate."

Carolers at a century-old Baghdad church practiced Sunday near a tall, thin tree bedecked with chipped ornaments and thin strands of tinsel. The Rev. Younan Shiba said gunfire often sent Sunday-school children ducking under desks, while drug dealers and other dangers had kept away half his congregation at Assyrian Evangelical Church.

Four days before Christmas, however, worshipers in lace scarves and battered suits tentatively returned to fill the scratched wooden pews, seeking solace and finding some unexpected security measures.

"Our Santa came in the morning!" said Jawan Petro, a 43-year-old church volunteer. "People laughed because they are used to seeing him at night, by candlelight, but now it's too dangerous. We're a poor church in a bad neighborhood, but it's OK—this is the first time Iraqis can talk openly about the Gospel."

Florence Oraham, 28, shopped for fancy dresses this week with other young women from her large Christian family. Before the war, the women said, they feared attending holiday parties because Saddam Hussein's notorious son Odai was known to sweep through the festivities to pick up girls.

This Christmas Eve, Oraham said, she wants to dance until dawn.

"People were so afraid before," Oraham said. "We got rid of Odai, but there are still robbers and looters. We know this. But we have to try to return to a normal life."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+CHRISTMAS