Sombre Christmas for Iraq's Christians under threat from ISIS

An Iraqi man displays a Santa Claus outside a shop in central Baghdad's Karada district on Dec 18, ahead of Christmas celebrations.
An Iraqi man displays a Santa Claus outside a shop in central Baghdad's Karada district on Dec 18, ahead of Christmas celebrations.PHOTO: AFP
Christmas and New Year's decorations displayed outside a shopping mall in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil on Sunday.
Christmas and New Year's decorations displayed outside a shopping mall in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil on Sunday. PHOTO: AFP
Iraqi Christian children, who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, sit outside their tents pitched in the grounds of Mar Elias Chaldean Catholic Church in Arbil.
Iraqi Christian children, who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, sit outside their tents pitched in the grounds of Mar Elias Chaldean Catholic Church in Arbil.PHOTO: AFP
A worker installs a giant Christmas tree in front of Baghdad's landmark Ramdan 17 mosque in the Iraqi capital's Firdous Square on Monday.
A worker installs a giant Christmas tree in front of Baghdad's landmark Ramdan 17 mosque in the Iraqi capital's Firdous Square on Monday.PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - With Christmas falling this year a day after Prophet Mohammad's birthday, the city of Baghdad is holding Christmas celebrations in a sign of brotherhood with Iraq's hard-pressed Christian community.

Fireworks will illuminate the Tigris river every night of the week and a 25-metre Christmas tree has been set up in Zawraa public park. In Zayuna camp, in the east of the city, children listened to Christmas carols on Wednesday and danced with Santa Claus to Iraqi songs.

But, though grateful, many Christians say the gesture comes too late to improve their lot in Iraq, their homeland for nearly 2,000 years, but where ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is making their future increasingly bleak.

"I saw some nice gestures from many people on Facebook and this made me happy, to be honest, that people are celebrating Christmas together with us in defiance of Daesh," said Mariam, a 29-year-old school teacher in Baghdad, referring to ISIS.

"But is it real? I don't think so," she said.

"Christians who left Iraq don't wish to return and some of them are even nagging us to leave, saying that even if we make it through this ordeal, the next one will be the end of it," she added, asking to be identified only by her first name.

ISIS, which swept through a third of Iraq in 2014 in its drive to build a caliphate, has displaced more than 200,000 Christians from the northern region of Nineveh, the cradle of the eastern Assyrian church, according to Iraqi Christian MP Imad Yohana.

So uncertain has become the fate of Iraq's Christians that some reminisce about days of Saddam Hussein, the dictator whose rule of a quarter century ended in 2003, when a US-led coalition invaded the country.

"There wasn't any discrimination back in the previous regime, things changed afterwards," said Abu Fadi, a 51-year- old father of three who works in Zayuna camp set up especially for Christian refugees fleeing ISIS.

A key figure of Saddam's regime, Tariq Aziz, who was his foreign minister, was a Christian. He died in prison in June. Saddam was hanged at the end of 2006.

"The toppling of the regime allowed the previously suppressed extremists to surface, from both sects," added Abu Fadi, referring to Shi'ite Muslims who rose to prominence after Saddam's removal, and Sunni Muslims to whom the dictator belonged and who now feel marginalised.

While the persecution by ISIS is the worst since the modern Iraqi state was created in the last century, scores of Christians have been kidnapped or killed, or had their churches bombed and been forced to leave their homes since 2004.

Iraq's Christian population has dropped from 1.3 million people in the 1997 census to about 650,000 now, said lawmaker Yohana. Their number ought to have been around 2 million by now under normal circumstances, he said.

Western countries make it easier for Christians in the Middle East to obtain visas on human rights grounds, unwittingly contributing to depletion of their numbers, he said.

The Women of Baghdad Association, a multi-religious organisation focused on fighting abuse against women, on Wednesday organised a gift distribution in Zayuna camp, where the children listened to a Christmas carol service.

"Christmas is in our hearts religiously, but I am depressed because it is not the same socially," said Said Jalal, 31, a volunteer worker at the camp. "Most of my family and acquaintances are either displaced or have left."