Christmas is not for us, say Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan

Driven from their homes and fearing for those left behind, these traumatised people say they want only to live in peace.

Iraqi Christians pray during an evening mass in Amman. Salah Malkawi for The National
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AMMAN // Inside a church in Amman, an Iraqi choir sang Christmas hymns, but for those who attended a recent Saturday evening mass, there seemed to be more blues than a Christmas spirit.

"Christmas is only for those who can celebrate it and it is not for us," said Yousef Abdullah , a 50-year-old Iraqi refugee, standing outside an Amman church accompanied by his two daughters .

Mr Abdullah, a Chaldean from the dwindling Iraqi Christian community, fled Baghdad in January, two months after his house was stormed by three masked men who ordered him to leave the country.

"It was dark and there was no electricity when I heard loud banging on the door. At first, I thought it was friends, but then three men masked in black forced their way in and started beating us with their Kalashnikovs. They pushed my wife on the floor and said, 'you Christians have no bread in this country'. You have two days to leave."

After that, Mr Abdullah hid with relatives until he was able to get enough money to leave. But he remains concerned about the situation in Iraq.

"How are we going to feel the joy of Christmas? My son is in Baghdad with his wife. He called me the day before yesterday and told me he wants to flee to [the Iraqi city of] Irbil. We cannot celebrate when tragedy struck Our Lady of Salvation Church," he said of the October 31 attacks that killed 68 people. "Even children were slaughtered at the altar. Our wounds are deep."

Iraqi Christians have suffered at the hands of extremist groups that have forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes since 2003.

Many were killed, kidnapped or threatened while several churches were bombed and their clergy murdered. Iraqi clergy estimated there were one million Christians in Iraq before the war, but the number has dropped to 400,000. Father Raymound Moussalli, a Chaldean priest, estimates there are 40,000 Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan.

Even before the church attack, the Vatican was so concerned about the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the region that it hosted a meeting for Middle Eastern bishops in October to address the issue.

But the recent attacks and al Qa'eda threats against Christians have compounded the feelings of uncertainty among Iraqi exiles this Christmas.

"Christmas is not the same anymore. How are we going to celebrate?" asked Amal Francies, a 48-year-old widow who lost her husband during the Iran-Iraq war 24 years ago. "I am worried about my two sisters in Iraq. My heart is with them."

Eighteen months ago, she fled Baghdad with her two sons, and now the family lives on aid from the Chaldean church.

"My son was kidnapped two years ago. I sold all my furniture and paid a ransom," she said.

"Our future now is uncertain and my application at the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to be resettled in Germany was turned down. We are taking each day as it comes. We used to have our own home in Iraq and now we don't even have a heater. At night we sit watching TV wrapped in blankets."

Since the Baghdad church attack, the Christian communities in Baghdad and Mosul have started a steady exodus from those cities to Kurdistan and Ninewa, according to the UNHCR.

"Some 1,000 families have arrived since the beginning of November. We have heard many accounts of people fleeing," said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming at a press briefing on December 17 in Geneva. "Churches and NGOs are warning us to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks. Many of the new arrivals explain that they left in fear as a result of the church attack on 31 October."

In Syria, since November, about 300 people have registered with UNHCR, the majority of whom fled Iraq.

The number of registrations of Christians in Jordan in October and November has doubled from the same period last year. In September, 57 Christians were registered. The number rose to 98 and 109 in October and November respectively, Ms Fleming said.

Because of the harassment, Christmas celebrations will be limited to prayers inside church in solidarity with the Iraqis who were murdered, Mr Moussalli said.

"On Christmas Eve, there is going to be a mass only and we will pray for the martyrs and for peace to prevail," he said. "Each year, the attacks against Christians are becoming worse. There is a fierce campaign against Christians and satanic plans to drive us out. We do not understand why. Is it motivated by sectarianism or prejudice against us?

"But what we hope that those behind the attacks understand is that the Christians want to live in peace with their Muslim brethren in a country they share."