Christmas in Iraq

By - Dec 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Megan Furcolow

Christmas Eve: Christian families gather and hold lighted candles while one of the children reads aloud about the birth of Jesus. After the reading, everyone sings over a bonfire of thorn bushes — if the thorns burn to ashes, it will bring good luck in the coming year. When the fire dies, each person jumps over the ashes three times while making a wish.

Christmas Day: As another bonfire burns in the churchyard, the bishop leads the service while carrying a figure of the baby Jesus. He blesses one person with a touch. That person touches the next person, and the touch is passed around until all have felt the “touch of peace.”

— Chaldean Christmas tradition

In the Cradle of Civilization

Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers lies Baghdad, a city of five million people. Iraq itself is a country of twenty-three and a half million, of whom about five percent, or one and three-quarters million, are Christian. It may come as a surprise, but under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Christians enjoyed a measure of religious freedom not often found in the rest of the region.

Five percent is enough to support six major Christian denominations in Iraq, and several smaller ones. The largest is the Chaldean Church of the East, a Catholic sect believed to have been founded by St. Thaddeus, who is credited with spreading Christianity to Mesopotamia, India and China. The Holy Apostolic and Catholic Assyrian Church of the East have written records dating to the late second and even first century, the time of the Apostles. The Syriac Orthodox church is another ancient denomination, and is believed to have been founded by the Apostle Peter in Antioch in 37 A.D. There is also the Syriac Catholic Church, founded by Syriac Orthodox Christians who reconciled with Rome in 1781; the Armenian Orthodox Church, and a small grouping of Protestant denominations.

In Baghdad alone, there are forty-seven Christian churches of various denominations. At least thirty of the forty-seven were built after the Baath Party took power in Iraq in 1963. Before the Baaths, there were no Syriac churches — now there are six. In the same window of time, the number of Chaldean Catholic churches nearly tripled. Clearly the secularism of the Baathist regime did allow Christians to practice their faith with a freedom remarkable in that part of the world. Notably, only one Christian church (The Rising) was built in Bagdahd after the U.S. imposed sanctions in 1991.

Christmas Past

Christians in Iraq have been politically prominent. Saddam Hussien’s Foreign Minister, familiar to Americans as Tariq Aziz, is a Chaldean Catholic who was born Michael George Yohanna. On the other side of the fence are Christian Iraqis like Mowfaq Fattohi of the opposition Iraqi National Congress.

Under Saddam, a walk down the streets of a shopping district in Baghdad in December might have closely mirrored its western counterparts. Christmas decorations, including nativity scenes, were seen in shops, restaurants and hotels. And Saddam reportedly sometimes attended services at Christian churches in Baghdad and even delivered an annual Christmas address. True to form, however, these addresses were often used to blast his opponents, especially the U.S. In a 1997 address Saddam criticized the United States and its allies for violating the teaching of Jesus:

“They are in fact stabbing it (Christ’s teachings) in the heart and committing all sins, crimes and deviations against which Jesus Christ has struggled and resisted with his principles of love and justice,” Saddam told his countrymen.

But why did Saddam apparently court Iraq’s Christian population?

Some have speculated that it was the influence of Azziz. However, three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly, of Voices in the Wilderness, an organization formed in 1996 to campaign against economic sanctions and military aggression against the Iraqi people, says the tolerance of Christians had more to do with Saddam’s political interest.

“I think Saddam did not want to alienate Christians. People around Saddam were always trying to present Iraq as a sovereign state that could have a role in the U.N. and ties with Europe and the United States,” Kelly says.

Then there was the Pope’s outspoken opposition to economic sanctions in Iraq. Saddam may have wanted to appear tolerant of Christians in the eyes of the Vatican. With few allies and few sympathetic to his government, having the Pope on his side may have been very desirable.

According to Kelly, “The Pope had regularly spoken out against sanctions. I can’t see it having served Saddam’s interest to run Christians out of the country.”

Christmas Present

The U.S.-initiated war in Iraq has affected the Christian population as much as the Muslim. While they don’t miss him, Christians in Iraq have not been shy about expressing their concerns now that Saddam is out of power. As Ronald Michael, president of the Illinois-based Assyrian American League stated, “Our greatest fear… (is that) there will be a substitution of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny for a new tyranny.”

Kelson Abdishi, an Iraqi-American living in Chicago, says that the situation for Christians has not drastically changed. There is no widespread targeting of Christians. He says that the Iraqi people are different from their neighbors in surrounding countries. They are accustomed to living in a secular culture were religious freedom is allowed.

“They (Christians) still go to church. There is no persecution of Christians,” Abdishi says.

But as is true for all Iraqis, there is serious concern for their safety and apprehension of things to come. Abdishi has two sisters who remain in Iraq and live in an almost constant state of fear of attacks in public places. Abdishi refers to the people waging the attacks as “bandits,” and does not believe that the majority of Iraqis support these attacks.

“They can’t even leave the house. The Iraqi people do not agree with this. There is total chaos. The people are miserable.”

It is in this atmosphere of suicide bombings, military occupation and destruction that Iraqi Christians will be celebrating Christmas this year. The traditional holiday of peace and goodwill will still be observed in the midst of war and suffering.

Christmas Future

Saddam ran a brutal regime — but he did maintain internal security, which made it possible for Christians to worship without fear reprisals. With Saddam deposed and the U.S and its allies struggling to restore stability, security has become the foremost concern of Iraqis, Christian and Muslim alike.

Cathy Brenn, a member of Voices in the Wilderness’ Iraq peace team, spent six months in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and has recently returned from a second trip to Baghdad. She says the situation on the ground remains tense, as people are afraid for the safety of their loved ones, especially women and children. She recalls one incident, in particular, of a mother sending her child to school for the first time since the attacks began. The school was right next to the Red Cross/Red Crescent Society headquarters, which were bombed on that day.

“She felt it was safe. The windows (in the school) were shattered. The kids were shell-shocked,” she recalls.

This is, unfortunately, a part of everyday life in post-Saddam Iraq. The shops close earlier than they used to. Women stay at home, often afraid to venture out, and keep their children close, afraid to even send them to school. But in a country where faith informs most areas of public and private life, people are doing what they can to maintain a modicum of normality.

“There is an apprehension, but life still goes does go on,” Brenn observed.

Between two rivers…

…is what “Mesopotamia” means in Latin. Around 2100 B.C., in the ancient city of Ur, not far from Baghdad, Abraham proposed the idea that there is only one God. Abraham lived in the land where agriculture and record keeping were invented, where metallurgy and the husbandry of animals was first practiced. The plow, the wheel, and possibly even the battery were invented here, in the Cradle of Civilization. Life will go on in Iraq. Just as it has for five thousand, five hundred years.

Photos for this story generously contributed by Thorne Anderson, an activist and photographer from Belgrade, Serbia.

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