CHRISTIANS in Iraq face a sombre and fearful Christmas, as the prospects for 2011 look, at best, uncertain.
“There’s been great fear, and there’s been a lot of anxiety,” Canon Andrew White, Chaplain of St George’s, Baghdad, told the BBC at the weekend. “We lost many of our families who have disappeared or been killed.” Some 500 of the formerly 4000-strong congregation were no longer present, he said.
The string of attacks on Christian targets this year, culminating in the siege in October of a cathedral in Baghdad in which more than 50 people were killed (News, 5 November), prompted the Iraqi government to erect concrete walls around churches and increase security in other ways. Despite the introduction of these new precautions, most churches in Iraq have decided not to risk the lives of members of the congregation, and have cancelled Christmas services and celebrations.
St George’s is one of the exceptions. Canon White said it was important for the Christmas-worship programme to continue, despite the current mood of fear: “Now it’s Christmas, and we are going to have a wonderful time. The only thing we can concentrate on is the fact that Christmas is good news and a time of hope. When you have lost everything, Jesus is all we have left.”
Canon White said he had always encouraged Christians to stay in Iraq because “we need people here to maintain Christianity. But it’s very difficult to do this now, when people have been killed.”
Many thousands of Iraqi Christians, from Baghdad and Mosul in particular, will be spending Christmas as internally displaced people in the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, or as refugees in neighbouring Arab countries. The UN Refugee Agency says that a further 1000 families have sought shelter in Kurdish areas in the wake of the church attack in Baghdad.
The UN speaks of “a significant increase” in the number of Christians fleeing their homes. Some have been able to take only a few belongings with them.
The same UN body criticised some European governments for forcibly repatriating Iraqis seeking refuge in their countries. In one recent incident, Sweden forced a group of 21 Iraqis, including five Christians, to return to Baghdad.
The European Parliament, in a statement last week, said the European community as a whole was “very concerned” about the plight of Iraqi Christians, and “had adopted a number of resolutions” to try to draw international attention to their plight.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan group, has called on the Obama administration to use its forum as “an opportunity to address the grave situation facing Iraq’s Christians and other imperilled religious minorities”. A number of Christian and human-rights groups in the US are also urging the administration to ease the restrictions on asylum-seekers who are fleeing religious persecution.
In Iraq, some Christian politicians have been meeting in the Kurdish zone with a view to petitioning the Baghdad government to approve a self-governing region where Christian communities could live in safety. But, with the country already in danger of fragmentation, the authorities are hardly likely to sanction a move that would only accelerate that process.
Christians are part of the fabric of Iraq, and have been so for centuries. Canon White said that some prominent Sunni Muslims would be present at Christmas celebrations this year to underline their determination that Christians should remain. If they left, it would be like “cutting the roots of Iraq”.
But with more than half of the Christians in Iraq already having fled the country, a miracle is needed this Christmas to make the country secure again, and to guarantee the survival of those roots.