ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, Christians in Iraq celebrated the birth of Jesus, but they did so with trepidation. Jesus is considered an important prophet by Muslims. But this year, Christmas coincides with the beginning of Ashoura, one of the most important dates in the Shiite Muslim calendar.

As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, Iraqi Christians are refraining from public signs of celebration out of respect, or out of fear, of their Muslim neighbors.

QUIL LAWRENCE: St. Joseph's Church, in the affluent neighborhood of Karada in central Baghdad, was built in 1959 out of concrete, with cathedral-high ceilings. Fifty years ago, the Christians in Baghdad might never have suspected their temple would be crowned with barbed wire around the courtyard, with police stopping cars a block away from the entrance.

Father SAAD SIROP HANNA (Parish Priest): The people, they come to me and they ask me if it is 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.

Father SAAD SIROP HANNA (Parish Priest): The people they come to me and they ask me if it is 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.

LAWRENCE: 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 1,200 Christian families here in Karada, but now less than 500. For Christmas Eve Mass, he expected a fairly full church, but that's because he was perhaps the only church in all of Baghdad holding a nighttime service.

Father HANNA: I am the only church doing that. I don't know if I did a mistake or...

LAWRENCE: Father Saad said he's walking a fine line. Christians have been targeted by Islamist militants, but he still wanted to celebrate Christmas with dignity. And 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 said Christians are voluntarily keeping the holiday behind closed doors.

Father HANNA: We decided to do it like this, just to be also in harmony with them, to respect a little bit for them. They are celebrating the death of Hussein and Hasan. It's a tragedy for them. So, we can't just celebrate the Christmas without taking in consideration their feelings. And they're also - anyway, it is a little - we are living in a very tense, actually, time now.

LAWRENCE: 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, Sheikh Qassim al-Taee, in Karbala, said he was thankful to Christians for keeping quiet this year.

Sheikh QASSIM AL-TAEE (Shiite Cleric): (Through Translator) With great appreciation and respect, we thank our Christian brothers for this noble act. We share in the country and have co-existed for over 1,000 years.

LAWRENCE: There have been popular signs of gratitude. Some Shiite mourners even displayed Jesus's 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.

(Soundbite of church)

LAWRENCE: 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.

(Soundbite of singing)

LAWRENCE: 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 then 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.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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