Threats prompt Chris­tians in Iraq to limit cel­e­bra­tions

Mid­night Mass called off, Santa visit can­celed

Houston Chronicle - - THE WORLD -

KIRKUK, Iraq — No dec­o­ra­tions, no mid­night Mass. Even an ap­pear­ance by Santa Claus has been can­celed af­ter Iraq’s Chris­tian lead­ers called off Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions amid new al-Qaida threats on the tiny com­mu­nity still ter­ri­fied from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church.

Chris­tians across Iraq have been liv­ing in fear since the as­sault on Our Lady of Sal­va­tion Church as its Catholic con­gre­ga­tion was cel­e­brat­ing Sun­day Mass. Sixty-eight peo­ple were killed. Days later Is­lamic in­sur­gents bombed Chris­tian homes and neigh­bor­hoods across the cap­i­tal.

On Tues­day, al-Qaida in­sur­gents threat­ened more attacks on Iraq’s be­lea­guered Chris­tians, many of whom have fled their homes or the coun­try since the church at­tack. A coun­cil rep­re­sent­ing Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions across Iraq ad­vised its fol­low­ers to can­cel pub­lic cel­e­bra­tions of Christ­mas out of con­cern for their lives and as a show of mourn­ing for the vic­tims. Can’t ig­nore threats

“No­body can ig­nore the threats of al-Qaida against Iraqi Chris­tians,” said Chaldean Arch­bishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. “We can­not find a sin­gle source of joy that makes us cel­e­brate. The sit­u­a­tion of the Chris­tians is bleak.”

Church of­fi­cials in Baghdad, as well as in the north­ern cities of Kirkuk and Mo­sul and the south­ern city of Basra, said they will not put up Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions or cel­e­brate mid­night Mass. They urged wor­ship­pers not to dec­o­rate their homes. Even an ap­pear­ance by Santa Claus was called off.

“It’s to avoid any attacks, but also to show that peo­ple are sad, not happy,” said Younadim Kanna, a Chris­tian law­maker from Baghdad.

Even be­fore the Oct. 31 church at­tack, thou­sands of Chris­tians were flee­ing Iraq. They make up more than a third of the 53,700 Iraqis re­set­tled in the United States since 2007, ac­cord­ing to State Depart­ment statis­tics. Many have fled

Since the church at­tack, some 1,000 fam­i­lies have fled to Iraq’s safer Kur­dish-ruled north, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, which re­cently warned of a steady ex­o­dus of Iraqi Chris­tians.

The lat­est threats were posted late Tues­day by the Is­lamic State of Iraq, an alQaida front group, on a web­site fre­quented by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists. The group said it wants the re­lease of two women it claims are be­ing held cap­tive by Egypt’s Cop­tic Church.

Mus­lim ex­trem­ists in Egypt ac­cuse the Cop­tic Church of de­tain­ing the women for al­legedly con­vert­ing to Is­lam, an ac­cu­sa­tion the church de­nies. The mes­sage posted Tues­day was ad­dressed to Iraq’s Chris­tian com­mu­nity and said it was de­signed to “pres­sure” Egypt.

Few re­li­able statis­tics ex­ist on the num­ber of Chris­tians re­main­ing in this nation of 29 mil­lion. A re­cent State Depart­ment re­port says Chris­tian lead­ers es­ti­mate there are 400,000 to 600,000, down from a pre­war level of some 1.4 mil­lion.

For those who re­main, Christ­mas will be a somber af­fair.

In the north­ern city of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, Sako said there will be no Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions out­side churches and a tra­di­tional visit by Santa Claus has also been called off. Money usu­ally used on cel­e­bra­tions or gifts will in­stead go to help Chris­tian refugees.

Ashour Binyamin, a 55-year-old Chris­tian from Kirkuk, said he and his fam­ily would not go to church and would cel­e­brate at home.

At Baghdad’s Our Lady of Sal­va­tion Church, where more than 120 parish­ioners were held hostage by gun­men, all Christ­mas Masses have been can­celed. Only a mod­est manger dis­play will mark the oc­ca­sion.


LIT­TLE CHEER, LOTS OF FEAR: De­spite the Santa dec­o­ra­tions seen in Bagh­dad on Wed­nes­day, Iraqi of­fi­cials have can­celed most Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions be­cause of threats of at­tacks by al-Qaida.

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