An Iraqi Family Celebrates Christmas

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Thousands gathered in Iraq at churches and in their homes to mark Christmas, which the government proclaimed a national holiday. Iraq's small Christian community has faced violence and many problems since U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Today, for the first time, Iraq's government proclaimed Christmas a national holiday. The announcement was seen as a gesture toward Iraq's persecuted Christian minority, which has suffered myriad attacks since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Today, in Baghdad thousands of Christian families attended church and then gathered at their homes to celebrate. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was invited to one Christian home this holiday, and she filed this report.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: For the first time in the years, all 15 members of the Salim family are gathering together for Christmas dinner. Some had traveled from as far away as Sweden and Dubai to be here. Drinking beer and talking, they sit near a small plastic Christmas tree glittering with baubles and lights that's tucked into a corner of the living the room. Fifty-five-year-old Fuad Noi Salim(ph) says that the generally improved security situation in Baghdad makes this Christmas special.

Mr. FUAD NOI SALIM: (Through Translator) For the Christians, it has been much better. We've been so careful trying to keep ourselves unnoticed and away from harm, but now we can go out freely. The church today was filled with people. So much so that some worshipers were left outside in the courtyard because there were not enough seats for them inside.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No one knows how many Christians remain in Iraq. In the last five years of war here Christian churches were bombed and families intimidated. Hundreds of thousands left the country, dispersing whole communities. This year has also been difficult. A series of attacks against Christians in the northern city of Mosul this fall caused hundreds to flee their homes. Some believed the violence was politically driven ahead of the upcoming provincial elections. Fuad's daughter Halla Fuad Noi Salim(ph) has coffee-colored eyes that matched her knee-high suede boots. She says she used to think there was no place for Christians in Iraq.

Ms. HALLA FUAD NOI SALIM: (Through Translator) When things were bad, we thought that one day we would have to leave our homes with only the clothes on our backs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But now, she says, this season she has that most precious feeling, hope. She doesn't know how long it will last.

Ms. SALIM: (Through translator) I can forgive and forget today, and do you know why? Because a Christian person is a forgiving person. As long as there's joy in my heart I will forgive.

(Soundbite of hammering)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside the kitchen relative Flovia Nahum(ph) is finishing up dinner.

Ms. FLOVIA NAHUM: (Arabic spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She lists the courses they will all feast on: chicken soup, rice and lamb, dumplings and apricot sauce. Helping her is Halla's mother, Haifa(ph). Her sister just arrived from Sweden.

Ms. NARUM: (Through translator) You cannot imagine the happiness we felt seeing her. We documented it. We taped the whole thing with a video camera. We were hugging each other, crying, laughing and kissing. You cannot imagine the situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still everyone here knows it's just a visit. Too soon, her sister will go back to her new life. Daughter Halla says she hopes one day all the Christians who fled will return to Iraq.

Ms. SALIM: (Through translator) I hope in the future the situation has improved enough so that people return to our country. Iraq is in big need of those who left. Iraqis, for we are true Iraqis, have passionate hearts. We always long to be back with our families no matter how far we go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The family members raised their glasses to toast the holiday.

(Soundbite of toasting)

Unidentified Man #1: Merry Christmas.

Unidentified Man #2: Cheers.

Unidentified Woman #1: OK.

Unidentified Man #3: Cheers.

Unidentified Woman #1: Cheers.

Unidentified Man #4: Cheers.

Unidentified Man #5: Cheers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this room on this night, everything in Iraq is momentarily perfect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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