Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas
Umm Salam draws her curtains across her windows, then settles into an armchair in a living room festooned with colored lights and a portrait of Jesus on the cross. Her Christmas tree glitters in the corner.
One of Iraq’s estimated 800,000 Christians, the 56-year-old widow celebrates the holiday quietly with her children and grandchildren, as violence sweeps the country.
“It is very risky to go the church in our neighborhood, so we will have a party at home and some of our relatives will come to celebrate,” she said. “They’ll have to stay the night at our home due to the security situation and the curfew.”
The evening service at the local church was canceled for security reasons. The Spirit of Christmas is still alive in Iraq, but it’s tucked away behind the closed doors of Christian families, who represent about three percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.
Most of the fighting in Iraq involves Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but Christians have also become targets. Church bombings and other sectarian attacks spiked amid a wave of anti-Christian anger over comments by Pope Benedict XVI in September that seemed to link the prophet Muhammad’s teachings to violence.
In October, a priest in the northern city of Mosul was kidnapped by a group demanding that he retract the pope’s statements. He was eventually found beheaded. According to the United Nations, more than a million Iraqis have fled since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with about 3,000 people now leaving daily. About 40 percent of those leaving are Christian, the U.N. says.
Umm Salam, who goes by her tribal name meaning “mother of Salam” out of fear she will be targeted if she reveals her Christian name, said Sunday she has no choice but to keep her religion a secret.
“We cannot show our happiness (about Christmas) to neighbors. But every single Iraqi has his own wounds, and life must go on,” she said. “Happiness is for the children when they will awake tomorrow and find their gifts near the tree.”
It wasn’t always like this. Umm Salam’s daughter, Um Mawj, recalls more peaceful times, when Christmas celebrations went on for days.
“We use to go to the clubs, and all the relatives and friends were there. Those years are unforgettable, but they have faded,” the 38-year-old said.
Her brother used to own a liquor store in Baghdad, but converted it into a grocery store when other alcohol vendors were attacked by Islamic militiamen. He sells Christmas trees, Santa dolls and colored lights at this time of year, but business is not as good as it used to be, Wisam Wadie said. “Violence has kidnapped our happiness and joy on this great occasion, and planted fears in our hearts,” he said.