www.USAToday.comKIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — No decorations, no midnight Mass. Even an appearance by Santa Claus has been nixed after Iraq’s Christian leaders called off Christmas celebrations amid new al-Qaeda threats on the tiny community still terrified from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church.
Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since the assault on Our Lady of Salvation Church as its Catholic congregation was celebrating Sunday Mass. Sixty-eight people were killed. Days later Islamic insurgents bombed Christian homes and neighborhoods across the capital.
On Tuesday, al-Qaeda insurgents threatened more attacks on Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, many of whom have fled their homes or the country since the church attack. A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public celebrations of Christmas out of concern for their lives and as a show of mourning for the victims.
“Nobody can ignore the threats of al-Qaeda against Iraqi Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. “We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak.”
Church officials in Baghdad, as well as in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and the southern city of Basra, said they will not put up Christmas decorations or celebrate midnight Mass. They urged worshippers not to decorate their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus was called off.
“It’s to avoid any attacks, but also to show that people are sad, not happy,” said Younadim Kanna, a Christian lawmaker from Baghdad.
Even before the Oct. 31 church attack, thousands of Christians were fleeing Iraq. They make up more than a third of the 53,700 Iraqis resettled in the United States since 2007, according to State Department statistics.
Since the church attack, some 1,000 families have fled to Iraq’s safer Kurdish-ruled north, according to the United Nations, which recently warned of a steady exodus of Iraqi Christians.
The latest threats were posted late Tuesday by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front group, on a website frequented by Islamic extremists. The group said it wants the release of two women it claims are being held captive by Egypt’s Coptic Church.
Muslim extremists in Egypt accuse the Coptic Church of detaining the women for allegedly converting to Islam, an accusation the church denies. The message posted Tuesday was addressed to Iraq’s Christian community and said it was designed to “pressure” Egypt.
Few reliable statistics exist on the number of Christians remaining in this nation of 29 million. A recent State Department report says Christian leaders estimate there are 400,000 to 600,000, down from a prewar level of some 1.4 million.
For those who remain, Christmas will be a somber affair.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, Sako said there will be no Christmas decorations outside churches and a traditional visit by Santa Claus has also been called off. Money usually used on celebrations or gifts will instead go to help Christian refugees.
Ashour Binyamin, a 55-year-old Christian from Kirkuk said he and his family would not go to church on Christmas and would celebrate at home.
At Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, where more than 120 parishioners were held hostage by gunmen during the four-hour siege, all Christmas Masses have been canceled. Only a modest manger display will mark the occasion.
“We have canceled all celebrations in the church,” said Father Mukhlis. “We are still in deep sorrow over the innocent victims who fell during the evil attack.”
In Baghdad’s Karradah neighborhood, where many of the city’s remaining Christians live, churches were guarded by security forces Wednesday and surrounded by razor wire. Shop owners said few people were buying the Christmas trees and Santa Claus toys on sale.
Ikhlas Bahnam, a Christian in the neighborhood, vowed to go to Mass on Christmas Day, despite what she called the government’s failure to protect her small minority. But she won’t be visiting friends during the holiday season because all of them have fled the city.
“We did not put any decorations inside or outside our house this year,” Bahnam said. “We see no reason to celebrate.”
In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, the Rev. Faiz Wadee, a Syrian Orthodox priest, said there will be no public Christmas celebrations there.
And Christians in Iraq’s second-largest city of Basra have also called off all celebrations, said Saad Matti, a Christian legislator on the Basra provincial council.
“There will be only a small Mass in one church in Basra without any signs of joy or decoration and under the protection of Iraqi security forces,” he said. “We are fully aware of al-Qaeda threats.”
Matti said Christians were also toning down their celebrations out of respect for a Shiite holiday going on at the same time. The majority of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, especially in the south.
Even among Iraqi Christians who’ve managed to escape the violence, the mood was subdued.
Maher Murqous, a Christian from Mosul who fled to neighboring Syria after being threatened by militants, said his relatives are still at risk in Iraq, and since they cannot celebrate, neither will he.
“We will pray for the sake of Iraq. That’s all we can do,” he said from his home in Damascus.