Iraqi Christians' Christmas: A Mostly Silent Night

Father Saad Sirop Hanna of St. Joseph's Church in Baghdad greets worshippers. i i

Father Saad Sirop Hanna of St. Joseph's Church in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad greets worshippers at the Christmas Eve Mass. Susannah George/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susannah George/NPR
Father Saad Sirop Hanna of St. Joseph's Church in Baghdad greets worshippers.

Father Saad Sirop Hanna of St. Joseph's Church in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad greets worshippers at the Christmas Eve Mass.

Susannah George/NPR

Christians in Iraq are celebrating the birth of Jesus this Christmas with some trepidation.

Jesus Christ is considered an important prophet by Muslims. But this year, Dec. 25 coincides with the beginning of Ashoura, one of the most important dates on the Shiite Muslim calendar. So Iraqi Christians are refraining from any public signs of celebration out of respect for — or fear of — their Muslim neighbors.

At St. Joseph's Church in the affluent neighborhood of Karada in central Baghdad, Father Saad Sirop Hanna, the parish priest, says people have asked him if it's safe to come to the church.

"And I say, 'Yes, it is safe. Please come, because we should celebrate Christmas. And this is our life, our religion,' " he says.

St. Joseph's was built in 1959 out of concrete with cathedral-high ceilings. Fifty years ago, the Christians in Baghdad might never have suspected the church would be crowned with barbed wire around the courtyard and police stopping cars a block away from the entrance.

Barbed wire and other security measures are in place around St. Joseph's Church. i i

Barbed wire and other security measures are in place around St. Joseph's Church. Susannah George/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susannah George/NPR
Barbed wire and other security measures are in place around St. Joseph's Church.

Barbed wire and other security measures are in place around St. Joseph's Church.

Susannah George/NPR

Behind Closed Doors

Father Saad just returned to Baghdad from Italy, where he finished a doctoral degree in philosophy. He's 38 years old, and he's barely holding his parish together.

Christians have been fleeing Baghdad since 2003. As Iraq's other sects and ethnic groups split into armed factions, the Christians mostly sold their assets and emigrated.

Father Saad estimates there were once 1,200 Christian families in Karada, but now there are fewer than 500. For Christmas Eve Mass, he expected a fairly full church — but that's because his was perhaps the only church in all of Baghdad holding a nighttime service.

"I am the only church doing that," he says quietly. "I don't know if I did a mistake or ..."

Father Saad says he's walking a fine line. Christians have been targeted by Islamist militants, but he still wanted to celebrate Christmas with dignity.

To complicate matters this year, the majority Shiites in Iraq are busy with the commemoration of Ashoura, the date in the Islamic calendar marking the death of Imam Hussein, one of the founding martyrs of Shiite Islam.

Father Saad says Christians are voluntarily keeping the holiday behind closed doors.

"We decided to do it like this, just to be also in harmony with them, to respect a little bit for them," he says. "They are celebrating the death of Hussein. ... It's a tragedy for them, so we can't just celebrate the Christmas without taking in consideration their feelings. ... We are living in a very tense ... time now."

Displays Of Gratitude

It's hard to tell if it's fear or respect motivating them to keep Christmas muted. No prominent Shiite leaders have asked the Christians to skip their celebrations. Nor have they encouraged Christians to celebrate openly.

Along with many other prominent Shiite clerics, Shiekh Qassim al-Taee in Karbala said he was thankful to Christians for keeping quiet this year.

"With great appreciation and respect, we thank our Christian brothers for this noble act. We share the country and have coexisted for over a thousand years," he said.

There have been popular signs of gratitude. Some Shiite mourners even displayed Jesus' name on their Ashoura procession; no great contradiction, since Muslims also regard Jesus as a prophet and martyr.

Still, it left Father Saad and his parish with a dilemma, and he waited a bit nervously last night as worshippers started arriving.

By 8 p.m. local time, about 300 people had turned out, and he invited them into the courtyard of the church to light a brazier near the statue of the Virgin Mary.

It wasn't exactly a public procession, but at least it was outside, in the cool air of Baghdad's winter. A choir of young men and women began to sing, and the congregation joined in as they walked around the fire, and then proceeded slowly back into the church, with Father Saad shepherding in the stragglers, swinging a censer full of incense.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.