Threats prompt Christians in Iraq to limit celebrations
Midnight Mass called off, Santa visit canceled
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.