RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
News from Iraq is mostly filled with stories of sectarian violence. Sunnis and Shiites kidnapping, killing and torturing each other. But often overlooked in Iraq's strife is the persecution of members of minority religions, Mandaeans, Shabaks and Christians. On this Christmas Day, Iraq's Christians have little to celebrate. Midnight mass was cancelled due to the standing 9 p.m. curfew. And many Christians are choosing to stay home out of fear.
NPR's Joel Riddle reports from Baghdad.
JOEL RIDDLE: Abdullah O. Nufuli(ph) is head of the Endowment for Religious Minorities in Iraq. The endowment is an official governmental organization that helps manage relations between church and state. He's a stocky man, in his late 50s, clean-shaven, wearing a suit and tie. He says priests and churches have been the targets of religious violence.
ABDULLAH O: (Speaking foreign language).
RIDDLE: A wave of explosions targeting churches started in August of 2004. In one day, six churches were blown up in Baghdad and Mosul, he says, other waves of explosions followed. And now, the abductions have started.
NUFULI: (Through translator) We had an archbishop kidnapped in Mosul. This year, two priests were kidnapped and killed. One priest was decapitated, and his hands cut off. And the other was also killed, the body mutilated. And in Baghdad, six priests were kidnapped from the biggest Christian sect.
RIDDLE: Nufuli says that this sort of violence has had a chilling effect on the way Christians are celebrating Christmas. He says this year there are less celebrations than last. He says people that live amidst such death and destruction need to celebrate to help forget, if only just for a few hours, the sorrows their daily lives are filled with. Nufuli says it's even hard to find a place to buy a Christmas tree.
NUFULI: (Through translator) Last year, if you went to the markets, you'd find Christmas trees everywhere. Now, you find them only in narrow alleys. Some merchants are even afraid to display them.
RIDDLE: Abu Yasser(ph) is one of those merchants. Together, with his son, he has set up shop along a wall just down the street from a church. They warm themselves next to a fire of Christmas tree scraps. A look of unease flashes across his face with every passing car.
ABU YASSER: (Speaking foreign language)
RIDDLE: Last year was better than this year, he says, and the year before that, better still. It seems every year we sell less. One of Yasser's customers, an engineer who simply calls himself Mosin(ph), agrees.
MOSIN: (Through translator) I doubt we'll be able to go to church this Christmas, because not even our clerics have been spared. For them to carry out a ritual they have to be here, but they have left the country.
RIDDLE: Fearing religious prosecution, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have left their homeland, most to Jordan and Syria. While this mass emigration separates families of all religions, it has hit the Christians hard, who are attacked by both Sunni and Shia. Abdullah Nufuli(ph), the head of the Endowment for Religious Minorities in Iraq.
NUFULI: (Through translator) There are 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria and Jordan. I can say that half of them are Christians. There used to be more than 1 million Christians in Iraq. We are now about 5 percent of the population.
RIDDLE: Nufuli says that the Sabean Mandaeans, a Christian offshoot adhering to the teachings of John the Baptist, have undertaken their largest migration in their 2,000-year history. And for Christians in Basra and other southern provinces, Nufuli estimates that 75 percent have fled either to the relative safety of the Kurdish north, or out of the country all together.
In Baghdad, where Christians are being intimidated by Sunni extremists, just finding the star for their Christmas tree has become a chore.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELLS")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun is it to ride in one horse open sleigh. Hey.
RIDDLE: Abu Reyna(ph), a shop owner who sells Christmas decorations has had to cut back on advertising.
ABU REYNA: (Through translator) Next year, seeing how things are going, I think all the shops will be closed. Each year, we used to exhibit our goods outside the shops, but now we're afraid to show anything. This year we've lost our regular customers because we had to take down our sign. We are afraid to show anything.
RIDDLE: That in many ways is the story of Christmas in Baghdad. Fear - fear to celebrate, fear to worship, and fear to shop. Mosin, the engineer buying the Christmas tree, says that it's become a must for Christians to overcome their fear.
MOSIN: (Speaking foreign language)
RIDDLE: They are forced to do it he says so that their children will not forget. And adds, his generation, the old have already lost the Christmas spirit altogether.
Joel Riddle, NPR News, Baghdad.
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