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In Iraq, many churches cancel traditional Christmas celebrations

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sabri Yohana sat in front of his Baghdad church this week with an AK-47 assault rifle and bad news for visitors: Christmas is canceled.

There would be no service Christmas morning and no parties at dusk. No tinsel-covered trees or tinny-voiced children's choir. Christmas in Iraq, he said, is the latest casualty in a guerrilla war that's taking on increasingly sectarian tones.

"Dozens of families from our congregation have left for Syria or Jordan or Western countries," Yohana said. "I can't even send my kids to school because it's so unsafe. For Christmas, we'll stay home. There's nowhere we can go, nowhere safe enough to take your wife and kids."

Thousands of Iraqi Christians won't be celebrating the birth of Christ this year—partly out of fear and partly to protest the violence plaguing the country. Christian leaders said they would hold short, subdued masses but would forgo traditional pageants, caroling and feasts. Christmas Eve midnight masses will be held in the afternoon.

It's the latest setback for a minority community that already has weathered attacks on Christian-owned liquor stores, threats against women who don't cover their hair and a rash of church bombings in August and October that killed 10 people and wounded 50 in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

"Last year, we put up a Christmas tree and decorated with lights and toys," said George, 19, who withheld his last name out of fear. "We went to church in the morning for prayers, then we'd visit relatives and have a nice lunch. I'm sad this year. We can't celebrate or pray because of the security situation."

A multidenominational Christian council announced that celebrations were canceled "as a protest against the attacks on mosques and churches, and in solidarity with the families and victims of terrorist actions," said Yonadam Kanna, a prominent Assyrian Christian politician. About 700,000 Christians live in Iraq; they make up about 3 percent of the total population.

Islamic extremists have cracked down on Christians, who are targeted mainly because of their shared religion with American military forces, who are viewed as anti-Muslim occupiers. Insurgents also appear to be driving wedges among Iraq's diverse communities in hopes of sparking a civil war that would keep the country violent for years to come.

"The enemies of freedom don't want stability or freedom for Iraqis, but we are ready to pay for it and we will celebrate when our homeland is stable one day," Kanna said.

Last year, Iraq's Christians celebrated their first Christmas after Saddam Hussein's ouster with brightly decorated trees, Santa Claus appearances and emotional services at Baghdad's historic churches. This year, many of those churches are charred and rubble-strewn from a string of bombings in August.

Even in private, many Christians said, they won't mark the holiday with the parties and social visits that many look forward to all year. One Christmas tree vendor in Baghdad said sales this year are barely half of last year's. Stacks of ornaments, furry Santa hats and tiny lights sat untouched at several Baghdad gift shops this week. Glittering party dresses still hung on racks at upscale boutiques in Christian neighborhoods.

Hala Nather Shabo, a 36-year-old mother of three, bought a small plastic Christmas tree this week. She said it has been three months since her family attended church because her husband is too worried they'd be caught in a bombing.

"Going to church makes Christmas," Shabo said. "It's the Americans' fault for not putting a plan in place and following it. They are doing wrong here."

The Rev. Boutros Haddad, the guardian of the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in Baghdad, said he was sad and angry when he had to tell his congregation that Christmas celebrations were canceled. He tried to console them, reinforcing that prayers mattered most "to clean the soul" in these troubled times.

Inside, however, the clergyman was distraught.

"In all Iraqi history, this is the first time a church has been burned or bombed," Haddad said. "Now we see what's happening in Iraq, the land of brotherhood and civilization, and we won't celebrate. We can't celebrate."

He told his flock to pray for Muslims, too.

"I'll never forget when the churches were attacked in August, our Muslim neighbors came to me and told me not to be afraid. They promised to protect me and defend the church," Haddad said.

Adnan Naeb, a 44-year-old Muslim, lost his young son when a bomber struck a church adjacent to the family's home in the capital. Their home's ceiling fell in and crushed the boy. Naeb was severely injured. Even through their grief, he said, the family never blamed their Christian neighbors.

"The terrorists want to start a civil war between Christians and Muslims, but this is not Islamic," Naeb said. "The Christians are our friends and brothers."

Despite the warnings of church officials, some Christians planned holiday celebrations in an assertion of their religious identity. Yousef Shanon stopped by a gift shop this week to buy lights and decorations for his family's Christmas tree.

"I will go to church and I am not afraid. If God wants me to die, I'll be honored to be a martyr for democracy," said Shanon, a 48-year-old ethnic Assyrian, most of whom are Christian. "By going to church, I am challenging the terrorists. I am saying, `This is our Iraq, too.'''


(Hannah Allam in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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