Terror kills Christmas in Iraq

CHRISTMAS has gone underground in Baghdad this year with the leaders of one of the world's oldest Christian communities taking the extraordinary step of warning followers that it is too dangerous to openly celebrate Christ's birthday.

"We have told everyone that there should be no public parties or large gatherings and people should do their own celebrations in their homes," said Ra'ad Emmanuel, the head of the government-backed Iraqi Christian Endowment.

Interviewed in the endowment's offices in Baghdad, Mr Emmanuel said the departure of American troops last Sunday had left Iraq's embattled Christians fearing more than ever for their safety and their future.

In the six days since US forces ended their eight years and eight months in Iraq, the country's power-sharing government has rapidly unravelled and a renewed wave of terrorist bombings has been unleashed.

US President Barack Obama said one of his goals in withdrawing US troops two weeks ahead of their December 31 exit deadline was to allow American soldiers to celebrate Christmas with their families, but they have left little seasonal joy behind them.

"After Saddam fell, Christians were targeted and attacked because everyone thought we were somehow attached to the Americans but the truth is that the US did not do anything for the Christians," Mr Emmanuel said.

"A lot of Christians worked for the Americans as translators or in other roles but the Americans have actually left us in a much worse state than we were under Saddam."Saddam did not persecute Christians as much as he did the Shia (Muslims) and Kurds but we were still happy to see him go and we thought life would be better after the (2003) war."

"That is not how it has worked out for us."

Iraq's Christians, who were among the first to follow Jesus, say they have suffered as much harassment and violence since the first Gulf War in 1991 as at any stage in their 2000-year history.

Iraqi Christians believe their conversion in the first decades after Christ's death was led by the apostles Thomas and Thaddaeus, and some members of the local Chaldean and Syriac Christian churches still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken.

Islamic "newcomers" who conquered the region six centuries later hounded the Christians between the 13th and 16th centuries, and as late as in the 1930s the army of newly independent Iraq killed thousands of Christians for having co-operated with Britain, the former colonial power.

But with no armed militia or political parties, today's Christians have been more vulnerable than most to sectarian killers who often saw the US occupation forces as Christian "crusaders" and infidels.Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 70 per cent of Iraq's Christians have fled their homes since the 2003 invasion.

Statistics are unreliable but the Christian population is believed to have crashed from about 1.4 million to less than 500,000, with many of those who are still in the country having sought refuge in Christian-heavy parts of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

Mr Emmanuel said the southern city of Basra had been virtually abandoned by Christians and there had been repeated church bombings, kidnaps and assassinations in Baghdad.

Early this week, several Christian teenagers wandered quietly inside the gutted church of Our Lady of Salvation in central Baghdad, shaking their heads at the hundreds of bullet holes left by a massacre in November last year.

"Incredible, it is just incredible," said one young woman who did not want to be named. "They did this to complete strangers just because of our religion."

Five killers linked to al-Qa'ida burst into the church during an evening mass and used automatic weapons, grenades and suicide vests to kill 58 people, including two priests. A group linked to al-Qa'ida declared after the attack that all Christians were now "legitimate targets for the mujaheddin (holy warriors)."

Since then the number of armed guards permanently protecting the country's 237 churches has been tripled to 3000, and no religious service takes place without the protection of concrete bomb screens and automatic weapons.

The exodus of Christians has left bishops and groups such as the Endowment, which supports all Christian denominations, worried that their church may suffer the fate of Baghdad's Jews, who made up a third of the city's population in the 1920s but have since seen their numbers dwindle from 130,000 to just seven. Many of the fleeing Christian refugees have sought protection in neighbouring countries but the Arab Spring has brought fear to Christians across the Middle East because of the rise of new Islamic governments in place of secular regimes.

Christmas has traditionally been a high-profile festival in Baghdad, with many Muslim families sharing presents and other trappings of the season, but not any more.

"Before, we would celebrate in the streets and in clubs and there would be decorations everywhere but now people will go to church and then go home to celebrate privately," Mr Emmanuel said.

This year's caution has been heightened by the fact that Christmas overlaps with the Muslim festival of Muharram, which includes a period of grief over the death of the holy figure Imam Hussein.

"If we were seen to be disrespectful of Muharram, a lot of terrorists would use that against us, so it is better to keep a low profile and protect the Christian population," he said.

PETER WILSON, The Australian

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