Iraqi Christians Mark Somber Christmas In Baghdad

The Oct. 31 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church was the deadliest ever against Christians in Iraq, killing 68 people. It and a string of bombings that followed prompted thousands of Christians to flee to Iraq's more peaceful Kurdish-run north — and renewed al-Qaida threats cast a shadow over Saturday's celebrations.

But the 300 worshippers who gathered on Christmas morning insisted they would not be driven away.

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

The walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting covered gaps where glass windows used to be and small pieces of dried flesh and blood remain stuck to the ceiling. The sound of helicopters buzzing overhead competed with the church service below; the building is now surrounded by concrete blast barriers and a phalanx of security officers.

Iraqi church officials canceled many Christmas celebrations like appearances by Santa Claus or evening Mass, out of fear for their parishioners' safety after al-Qaida this week threatened more violence against them. The toned down celebrations were also a sign of respect for the suffering the community has undergone.

In the church assault, gunmen took more than 120 people hostage in a siege that ended with 68 people dead. Days later a string of bombings outside Christian homes and in Christian neighborhoods hammered home the threat.

At the church on Saturday, pictures of many of the victims — including several children — were arranged with flowers on the steps in front of the altar. Parishioners said they would not be cowed into abandoning their faith or their country.

"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."

Some of the parishioners said they had not bought a Christmas tree and felt little cause for joy. Laith Amir said he and his family stay home most of the time because they're too afraid to go out. Still, he said, the church attack strengthened the will of many Christians.

"The church was baptized 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," he said.

The few church services that were held Christmas Day in other parts of the country were generally subdued affairs.

Roads leading up to churches in the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, were sealed off by razor wire. Security forces deployed around the churches that were devoid of Christmas decorations.

"Today's Mass is a sad one to show solidarity with the victims of Our Lady of Salvation church," priest Emad Abouna told a gathering at the Mother Theresa church in central Basra.

Many churches in the northern city of Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, did not hold services. Sunni militants have a strong foothold in the city and have waged a campaign of intimidation against Christians. Some Christians traveled to nearby towns or villages to attend a Christmas church service.

Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 Christians still live in Iraq, according to a recent State Department report. At one time before the war, that number was as high as 1.4 million by some estimates.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Christians to not be driven out of the country.

"The attempts to keep Christians away from their homeland and their land, which clung to them through the centuries, is a great crime against national unity," al-Maliki said in a statement on his website Saturday marking the Christmas holiday.

U.N. officials estimate that about 1,000 Christian families have sought refuge in northern Iraq in the three provinces that make up the Kurdish region or the Ninevah plains northeast of Mosul; both regions are considered safer than Baghdad or Mosul.

Sheat Jubran went with his three children to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, after the church siege. His relief at being safe was tempered by sadness Saturday.

"How can we celebrate while Christians are killed on a daily basis in Iraq? They killed our children and worshippers during prayer time, and they keep on practicing the ugliest crimes against Christians," he said.

This program aired on December 25, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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