A Season of Uncertainty for Christians in Iraq

Christians make up less than 3 percent of Iraq's population, and many are seeking to leave. Some see their country as becoming increasingly divided along sectarian lines, and worry that they'll be the target of attacks.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Christians around the world celebrated the birth of Jesus today. At the Vatican, Pope Benedict said a special prayer for peace and goodwill in the Holy Land, in Lebanon and in Iraq. We begin our program tonight from Iraq where Christians make up less than 3 percent of the population. Many are leaving the country as they see it increasingly divided along ethnic lines. But today, many Christians defied their fears about security and turned out for Christmas Day Mass in Baghdad. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report.

(Soundbite of religious service)

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Standing at the altar in brilliant vestments, an Orthodox priest sings a Christmas blessing to a sparse crowd. Attendance at St. Peter and St. Paul's Cathedral in Baghdad Christmas morning was thin at first. But as the priest continued his blessings, more people turned up. Women wearing fur-lined collars and pointy-toed boots with salon-coiffed curls walked in. They donned white-laced veils as they stood in the different pews. Following them in, although in nowhere near as great in number, were the men, in suits.

(Soundbite of religious service)

TARABAY: Slowly the pews filled and the sound of singing grew louder and louder until it filled the cathedral and there was nowhere left to sit. During the service, the priest apologized to everyone for not being able to visit the different neighborhoods as he has in the past as part of the Christmas custom here. But being a Christian has its own dangers in Iraq and in his sermon the priest prayed for a better future.

(Soundbite of religious service)

Unidentified Priest: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: He said, `Please accept our blessings and congratulations which we pass on to each and every one of you here instead.' And then he wished everyone a happy Christmas, peaceful life with blessings from God.

After a procession around the cathedral, the crowd spilled out into the courtyard. For Iraq's Christians, it was a rare opportunity to be outdoors in their finery and they did it this year in much greater numbers than last Christmas. Saher Ascot(ph) is here with his wife, Wasum(ph). They were married at the cathedral three months ago. Wasum says coming to Mass is the only time she's been able to leave the house. Saher says Iraqi Christians, in particular, have reason to worry.

Mr. SAHER ASCOT (Iraqi Christian): (Through Translator) As Christians we are afraid of the future. And we are suffering a lot here because we are a minority and no one's protecting us. Not any system's protecting us.

TARABAY: Not only are Christians a religious minority here, they're also an ethnic minority. Because he's a Christian, Saher Ascot says no one will employ him. He has little hope the next government will protect minority rights when it eventually comes together.

Mr. ASCOT: (Through Translator) They're all fighting for their own interests, but not for the interests of the Christians in Iraq. Most of the Christians are hoping to leave Iraq to live in Europe and America because they want to live with people who understand them.

TARABAY: Many have already left. Under Saddam Hussein, Christians enjoyed a certain acceptance, but once the regime fell, Christians who sold alcohol in stores were forced to shut down or were bombed out by Islamic fundamentalists. Last summer, militants struck churches in Baghdad and Mosul on the same day, killing at least seven and wounding dozens. Iraqi Christians feel threatened by compatriots who view them as collaborators of the American occupation. They see little room for their rights in a government that is expected to be made up almost entirely of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, who will be fighting their own battles for recognition.

Abu Minah(ph) has sold Christmas trees for years here in Baghdad. He says the number of people who come to buy them is dropping every year.

Mr. ABU MINAH: (Through Translator) The country is getting worse and worse. People are afraid to out because there have been so many explosions at the markets.

TARABAY: Abu Minah didn't go to Christmas Mass; fear kept him at home.

Mr. MINAH: (Through Translator) I'm afraid for my baby girl. If I go to church and an explosion happens, she might become an orphan, so I can't go. Last year, I risked my life when I went, but this year, no, because this year our country is worst than before.

(Soundbite of traffic)

TARABAY: But the street outside the cathedral at the end of the service was crowded. Groups of young men and women loitered and talked. For some, it was their only chance to socialize, so they took their time, not knowing when they would next get the opportunity.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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