ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
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: Father Saad Sirop Hanna, the parish priest, just returned to Baghdad from Italy, where he finished a doctorate degree in philosophy. He's 38 years old, and he's barely holding his parish together.
F: 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.
F: I am the only church doing that. I don't know if I did a mistake or...
LAWRENCE: Father Saad said Christians are voluntarily keeping the holiday behind closed doors.
F: 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.
SIEGEL: (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: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.
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