Fatal at­tacks mar dim fu­ture for Iraq’s flee­ing Chris­tians

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By ALEXAN­DER DZI­A­DOSZ in Bagh­dad

It’s Christ­mas in Bagh­dad, and once again Iraq’s Chris­tians are cel­e­brat­ing be­hind blast walls and barbed wire.

At least 34 peo­ple died in bomb at­tacks in Chris­tian ar­eas on Wed­nes­day, some by a car bomb near a church af­ter a Christ­mas ser­vice. A church at­tack in 2010 killed dozens.

As prayers are of­fered and gifts handed out, many are won­der­ing what a surge in vi­o­lence to its worst lev­els in half a decade and pol­i­tick­ing ahead of April elec­tions means for a com­mu­nity whit­tled down by years of car­nage and mi­gra­tion.

On Christ­mas Eve, the Mar Yousif Syr­iac Catholic church in western Bagh­dad looked like a walled fortress. Sol­diers and po­lice ran bomb de­tec­tors across cars, searched trunks and bags and pat­ted down visi­tors be­fore the evening cer­e­mony.

In­side, the red con­fet­tistrewn Christ­mas tree, bright blue-and-white tile mo­saic, and strings of Santa Claus-themed bunt­ing con­trasted with drab streets strewed with con­crete blocks and barbed wire out­side.

But pews that would have over­flowed with wor­ship­pers a few years ago were barely twothirds full — a re­flec­tion of the fact that the Chris­tian com­mu­nity has fallen from about 1.5 mil­lion be­fore the US-led invasion to about half that.

“The fu­ture is very crit­i­cal be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion,” said hu­man rights ac­tivist Wil­liam Warda be­fore Tues­day night’s ser­vice, es­ti­mat­ing 10 to 20 Chris­tians were still leav­ing the coun­try each day. “Many Chris­tians ... are flee­ing from the coun­try be­cause of this is­sue, be­cause there is no sign of a bright fu­ture.”

Tanks and Santa

While the sit­u­a­tion is far from se­cure, Warda pointed to some signs of at least cau­tious im­prove­ments in con­fi­dence at the Mar Yousif Mass.

Or­ga­niz­ers felt se­cure enough, for in­stance, to move Mass to 8 pm af­ter hold­ing it ear­lier in the day in pre­vi­ous years.

Warda said he hoped re­cent ges­tures by Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al- Ma­liki’s Shi’ite- led gov­ern­ment, such as mak­ing Christ­mas a na­tional hol­i­day for the first time this year, would en­cour­age more Chris­tians to stay.

Ma­liki, whose gov­ern­ment has been crit­i­cized as sec­tar­ian and di­vi­sive, may have his own in­ter­ests in mind as well.

Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions are com­ing up next year and with car bombs, shoot­ings and sui­cide at­tacks a more or less daily oc­cur­rence, se­cu­rity is cer­tain to be on vot­ers’ minds.

There is plenty of ev­i­dence that au­thor­i­ties are ea­ger to cast them­selves as a na­tional force of sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity af­ter more than a decade of war and acrid po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions.

Christ­mas Eve over­lapped this year not only with the Shi’ite holy day of Ar­bain, but also with a ma­jor army of­fen­sive in desert ar­eas of the Sunni-dom­i­nated western An­bar prov­ince aimed at flush­ing out al-Qaida mil­i­tants.

Through­out the day, im­ages of tanks rolling through the desert along­side heav­ily armed troops were in­ter­spersed on state tele­vi­sion with pic­tures of Shi’ite pil­grims dressed in black and oth­ers of peo­ple in Santa Claus out­fits.

A sil­hou­et­ted sol­dier stand­ing by an Iraqi flag and the words, “Am­nana bikum” (You make us safe) flashed in the cor­ner of the screen.

‘Part­ners as tar­gets’

In Iraq, the Chris­tian mi­nor­ity shares some ground with ma­jor­ity Shi’ites in that both groups see them­selves as vic­tims of mil­i­tants linked to alQaida who have stepped up at­tacks against Ma­liki’s gov­ern­ment and its sup­port­ers this year.

It was per­haps with th­ese im­pres­sions in mind that Am­mar Al- Hakim, one of Iraq’s most pow­er­ful Shi’ite politi­cians, vis­ited Mar Yousif’s Christ­mas Eve Mass.

Hakim, head of the Is­lamic Supreme Coun­cil of Iraq, a Shi’ite party that has some­times al­lied with and some­times op­posed Ma­liki, rose af­ter the ser­mon and spoke of tol­er­ance, for­give­ness and peace, say­ing Je­sus Christ was an ex­am­ple. Then he turned to al-Qaida. “They tar­get you like they tar­get us. There are peo­ple in this coun­try who be­lieve that any­one who has a dif­fer­ent opin­ion should be killed,” he said as a small army of burly body­guards in suits fanned out through the church.

“We are part­ners as tar­gets. We are part­ners in this chal­lenge. And we will re­main part­ners in con­fronting ex­trem­ism, vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ism,” Hakim said.

ALI AL-SAADI / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

An Iraqi Chris­tian holds a child dur­ing Christ­mas Mass at a church in Bagh­dad’s Kar­rada neigh­bor­hood on Wed­nes­day.

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