Iraqi Christians limit Christmas celebrations over Gaza war

Occasion being marked by prayers but without public events or social gatherings amid anger at government's removal of top officials

A priest leads Christmas Mass at St Mary's Chaldean Church in Iraq's southern city of Basra on December 24, 2023.  AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

Christians in Iraq observed Christmas with muted celebrations in protest over what they consider injustices by the government against the dwindling community.

The decision by leaders of the Chaldean Catholic Church, to which most Iraqi Christians belong, is also out of respect for the more than 100 people killed in a fire at a wedding in September and to show solidarity with Gaza, said Father Nadheer Dako of St Joseph Cathedral in Baghdad.

In July, President Abdul Latif Rashid revoked a 2013 presidential decree that recognised the Iraq-based cardinal Louis Sako as leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church, allowing him to administer the community's endowment.

The presidency said the decree had no "constitutional or legal basis" as the president "only issues appointment decrees for employees of government institutions".

Mr Sako considered the decision an attack against him, but Mr Rashid said the decision was "not intended to undermine the religious or legal stature of the cardinal".

It came amid a war of words between Mr Sako and a Christian MP and militia leader, Rayan Al Kildani, who accused each other of exploiting their position to illegally seize Christian-owned properties.

Mr Al Kildani is leader of the Babylon Movement, whose militia fought ISIS alongside the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-linked network of largely pro-Iran paramilitaries. Since the defeat of ISIS in 2017, he has forged strong alliances with powerful Tehran-allied Shiite militias.

Mr Sako decided to withdraw from the seat of the patriarchate in Baghdad and has moved to a monastery in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Last week, Mr Rashid revoked decrees recognising 10 bishops “instead of solving the crisis", Father Dako told The National.

“This is considered a marginalisation of the church and the Christian presence in Iraq,” he said.

“The Church officials are expressing their discontent with the government's stance. We hope that this denunciation in this peaceful way will be a message to the government and to the good people to reconsider their stance towards the Christians in Iraq."

The Chaldean Patriarchate decided earlier this month to cancel all activities and celebrations for Christmas.

“Celebrations are limited to prayers for peace and stability in Iraq, the Holy Land, and the region,” the Patriarchate said.

Father Dako said church officials were directed not to receive government officials and avoid speaking to the media in protest over the deaths at wedding reception in Hamdaniyah and in solidarity with the plight of Gaza and its children.

“There used to be celebrations and parties in churches and public areas as well as social gatherings, but these were stopped this year,” he said.

“So we only did the prayers to God, away from any festive atmosphere.”

Before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Christians lived in peace among Iraq's Muslim majority and enjoyed protection from both the government and society.

But with the rise of extremism since then, the community faced targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom, prompting many to flee the country and leave behind homes and businesses which have since been taken illegally, mainly by gangs who forged property ownership papers.

Iraqi Christians suffered their worst attack in October 2010, when an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad during a Mass, killing at least 58 people.

Four years later, thousands of Christians fled Mosul and surrounding areas as ISIS militants advanced, confiscating their ancestral homes, burning churches and forcing them to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.

There is no official data on the number of Christians in Iraq but the community’s leaders estimate that only about 300,000 remain out of the 1.5 million before 2003.

Updated: December 25, 2023, 11:02 AM