Iraq's Christians observe Christmas celebrations with fear and anxiety

New crisis follows dispute over last month's national election results and looming US troop withdrawal

Iraq’s political and security turmoil, coupled with economic strains, have cast a shadow on Christmas and New Year celebrations, leaving the country’s dwindling Christian community gloomy and disappointed.

The Kurdish region has been a peaceful oasis for Christians fleeing persecution in other parts of Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed a tidal wave of sectarian violence.

But since October national elections, the war-ravaged nation has entered a new political crisis with Shiite political rivals at loggerheads over the election results, delaying the formation of the new government.

That tension escalated into violence early last month when prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt a few days after two protesters were killed when security forces opened fire on protests led by Iran-backed militias.

In the northern Kurdish region, authorities have cancelled public Christmas and New Year celebrations out of respect for civilians who died in recent flash floods and for peshmerga forces and civilians killed in ISIS attacks.

Iraqis walk past Christmas goods being sold at a street shop in Baghdad, Iraq, December 22, 2021. EPA

It has put more stress on Hind Kamal Matti’s family, who decided to tone down their Christmas celebrations.

The harsh economic situation forces them to spend less, while the tense security atmosphere means they spend much of the time inside their home.

“Every year, there is a festive joy with preparations and entertainment programmes, whether at the church or among the families,” Ms Matti, 43, told The National as she sat in the living room of her small apartment decked out with Christmas decorations.

“But this year, people are afraid.

“We are in a critical situation. Not only for Christians but for all Iraqis, the situation is quite worrying.

The mother of two girls, aged 18 and 9, recalled how celebrations, family gatherings and picnics used to be before 2003.

“These are the things we can’t do any more, especially this year. Some churches will organise celebrations for families,” she said.

Hind Kamal Matti’s home in Karrada central Baghdad

However, the family will celebrate Christmas and New Year on a budget because the list of what they can afford has shrunk.

This year, their living room is decorated only by cushion covers featuring the smiley face of Santa Claus, plus last year's tree and ornaments. Ms Matti prepared just two kinds of cookies for the family.

“To be honest, it is a big burden, the devaluation of the dinar has increased prices in the markets,” she said. Iraq devalued its currency by about 23 per cent against the dollar last December to ease liquidity pressures.

Christians in Iraq trace their roots back to the beginning of the faith, but with the rise of extremism after the 2003 invasion, targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom against the community forced many to flee the country.

The houses and businesses of those who fled have since being taken over illegally, mainly by gangs using forged property documents.

A service at the Virgin Mary's Chaldean Catholic Church in central Baghdad.

Community leaders estimate that the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped to about a third of the estimated 1.5 million who lived in the country before 2003.

In a move to spur peace among Iraqis, Pope Francis visited the country in March. He met senior government officials as well as community leaders from different religions and held prayers and masses.

During his three-day visit, the pontiff described himself as a “pilgrim of peace” and called on Iraqis to ensure they had “one prayer, one mind, one hope to achieve unity and peace”. He called for an end to violence in Iraq.

Alarmed by the current crisis, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, called for a day of fasting and prayer on Tuesday for peace and stability.

Despite that tense atmosphere, Christmas is still felt across Baghdad.

Many restaurants, cafes and hotels are festooned with Christmas trees and glittery decorations. Shops are piled high with Santa Claus cuddly toys, plastic trees and other seasonal items.

At Sama Mall hypermarket in Baghdad’s Karrada area, part of the ground floor has been transformed into a forest of Christmas trees with seasonal music and songs filling the air.

Not only Christians were visiting the hypermarkets.

A shop selling Christmas trees and decorations in Karrada, central Baghdad.

Pushing a trolley, Noor Majid, a Muslim, browsed through a pile of white-trimmed bright-red Santa Claus outfits for something for her children.

“I already bought a tree and other decorations for home and we will have a cake to celebrate the birthday,” said Ms Majid, 35, a mother of two.

“We are happy but the current economic and security situation has disturbed us.”

Living just across the Tigris from the Green Zone, home to government offices and foreign embassies, she recalled how their home shakes every time militants fire rockets at the US embassy.

“We live in constant worry, but that doesn’t mean we can’t steal a moment of joy and peace,” she said.

Updated: December 23rd 2021, 4:02 PM