Martin Chulov in Baghdad
December 23, 2010
A shrine to Christians killed at the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad in the autumn. Al-Qaida has renewed threats against Iraq's Christians. Photograph: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty
Their cathedrals stand silent and their neighbourhoods are rapidly emptying. Now Iraq 's Christians face two further unthinkable realities: that Christmas this year is all but cancelled, and that few among them will stay around to celebrate future holy days.
It has been the worst of years for the country's Christians, with thousands fleeing in the past month and more leaving the country during 2010 than at any time since the invasion nearly eight years ago. Christian leaders say there have been few more defining years in their 2,000-year history in central Arabia.
The latest exodus follows a massacre led by al-Qaida at a Chaldean Catholic church in central Baghdad on 31 October, which left about 60 people dead, almost 100 maimed and an already apprehensive community terrified. Since then, the terrorist group has targeted Christians in their homes, including family members of those who survived the attack.
In Baghdad, as well as the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, Christmas services have been cancelled for fear of further violence. Church leaders said they would not put up Christmas decorations or celebrate midnight mass. They told families not to decorate their homes, for fear of attack after al-Qaida reiterated its threat to target Christians earlier this week.
"Now more than 80% of Christians are not going to the churches," said the head of Iraq's Christian Endowment group, Abdullah al-Noufali. "There is no more sunday school, no school for teaching Christianity . Yesterday we had a discussion about what we would do for Christmas. We took a decision just to do one mass. In years before we had many masses."
Noufali's church was closed and barricaded in 2005 when violence was consuming Baghdad. Many others had stayed open since then. Until now. In the wake of the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation church, at least 10 churches are believed to have been closed. At others, congregations are down to a handful.
Iraq's Christian population has halved since the ousting of Saddam Hussein. But in the past two months, the rate of departure has soared. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is reporting high numbers of registrations by Christians in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. And in Iraq's Kurdish north, the number of refugees is overwhelming.
Christians have been arriving since the president of the Kurdish regional government, Massoud Barazani, offered them protection and refuge days after the massacre.
Kurdish officials say at least 1,000 families have taken up the offer. Noufali believes the number is far higher. He says the Kurds have been warm and welcoming, but fears that moving there does not offer his community a long-term solution.
"We have seen in Kurdistan that they have no ability to accept the Kurdish students in the universities," he said. "There are not enough chairs in the university for them. They must have opportunity to learn and work. The problem is not just security."
In Lebanon, the plight of Iraq's Christians is being carefully scrutinised. Father Yusef Muwaness, of the Council of Catholic Churches in the Middle East , said: "We understand the shock [the Iraqis] are enduring. We want them to know that they won't be left alone.
"There are ancient issues at work. These people [al-Qaida] are killing because of a fatwa. There has not been a mufti who has stood up and said this is wrong."
Lebanon's Christians once held a demographic majority. Emigration and a brutal civil war has whittled numbers away. Amin Gemayel, a former Lebanese president and now patriarch of many of the country's remaining Christians, believes far more could be done by Muslim leaders to ensure that the exodus is not total.
"The Christians were very nationalistic," he said. "They are part of the foundations of this area. We can't understand such extremity then passivity from the leaders. When the region is completely cleansed of other religions (apart from Islam) it will be a surrender to the fundamentalists."
In the Chaldean archdiocese in Baabda, above Beirut, Father Hanna has been receiving Iraqi families fleeing their homeland. "I would go back there to give a service in front of one person, if I had to," he said. "But even that may not be possible now. Since 1 November, we have seen 450 families register here. Many more have gone to the UN."
Among those who have stayed in Iraq and tried to build a new life in the north, there are mixed feelings. "Three days after the church attack I left my house (in Baghdad) and came to the KRG," said Georges Qudah, 30, a pharmacy assistant. "At the main checkpoint I said we are a Christian family, and they said we are welcome to stay as long as we want. I feel safe and comfortable here, but the problem is how to live. The council here has given us blankets and beds, but housing is very expensive."
In Baghdad, there are few signs of the joy of Christmas.
"There is no hope here anymore," says Noufali. "No one can believe they [the Christians] will stay. Christmas came with two messages, peace in the world and hope for the people and we need these two things for our life in Iraq. If there are no more Christians here, I am certain Iraq will become a more dangerous country."
Christianity in the Middle East
Freedom of worship for Christians varies greatly across the Middle East.
In Lebanon, where about half the population are Christian, believers are allowed to practise their faith without fear of persecution. The Maronite Church is the largest, most politically active and influential denomination, holding 34 of the 64 Christian seats in the Lebanese parliament.
In Jordan, Christians are free to profess their faith, build churches, schools, hospitals and universities. They attend mass and there are public celebrations of religious festivals and ceremonies. They experience less discrimination and more freedom than fellow believers in Egypt and Iraq. There is a similar portrait of stability and freedom in Syria, where Christians comprise up to 10% of the population.
Evangelising bvy Protestants in Jordan has prompted a crackdown on churches, visas and summer camps. Attempting to convert Muslims is illegal, but there is no law against proselytising to other Christians and some Catholic and Orthodox groups have complained of energetic wooing from Protestants. It is this evangelising that has offended authorities, keen to avoid religious zealotry of any sort.
What Saudi Arabia lacks in violent persecution it makes up for in outright intolerance. There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, which counts a million Catholics in its population. The country allows Christians to enter for work purposes but severely restricts the practise of their faith.
Christians worship in private homes and there are bans on religious articles including Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings and items bearing religious symbols. The religious police bar the practice of any religion other than Islam. Conversion of a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy and carries a death sentence if the accused does not recant. Still, Christians in Saudi Arabia are positively blessed compared with those of Iraq.