Another dangerous Christmas in Iraq

ChristmasParadeInIraqTimes continue to be tough for Christians who live and who attempt to worship in Iraq. As you would expect, several mainstream news outlets used Christmas as a hook for updated reports about this issue, which touches at the heart of human-rights concerns about the plight of religious minorities in Iraq. How tough did things get this Christmas? Here's the top of a Washington Post report on the subject:

Christians in Iraq are preparing for a muted holiday season, with one bishop in the southern city of Basra calling for a ban on public festivities while other congregations across the country have canceled services and cautioned worshipers to keep their celebrations private.

The Chaldean bishop of Basra, Imad al-Banna, is asking Christians "not to display their joy, not to publicly celebrate the feast of Nativity" to avoid offending Iraq's Shiite community, whose Ashura holiday falls two days after Christmas this year. According to Louis Sako, chief archbishop of Kirkuk for the Chaldean Christians, a Catholic sect that originated in Iraq, none of the northern archdiocese's nine churches has scheduled a Christmas Mass this year.

"This is the first time we have had to cancel our celebrations," he said.

Conditions continue to worsen for the Christian minority there and the report has the sad numbers to illustrate that. Here's a sample:

Hundreds of thousands of Christians remain in Iraq, but many live in isolated enclaves, according to church officials. ... (The) Chaldean archbishop, said that 10,000 Christians have fled Kirkuk in the past three months, and church officials in Basra have reported that the Christian community there has halved to about 2,500 people because of militia attacks.

The United Nations reported over the summer that 12,000 Christians had left Mosul and recently called for a "redoubling of efforts" to protect the besieged minority. Many Christian families have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where church services and festivities are held with no apparent security problems.

You can read many of the same facts in this Los Angeles Times report, as well, which includes details from Dec. 25th events.

The news is especially bleak since there were signs of hope not that long ago. Thus, we read:

Only months ago, there was optimism that Iraq might be on the verge of stability, but after weeks of rising bloodshed, many churches closed their doors ... or hosted few guests for a late-afternoon Christmas Eve Mass.

Most Christians fled Baghdad in 2006 and '07 at the height of the sectarian violence when Islamic militants branded them U.S. collaborators, attacked their churches and gave them an ultimatum to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax. A year ago, some returned triumphantly to their neighborhoods. But now they again are alarmed by the security situation in the city and nervous about drawing attention to themselves.

I really only have one concern about these reports, which are gripping -- but incomplete.

To see what I am talking about, click here.

You would think, if you read the Christmas news reports, that all Christians in Iraq are in Eastern Catholic churches linked to Rome, such as the Chaldeans. Let me state right up front that it is understandable that these larger groups, especially those with ties to the West, would dominate reports in Western media.

Still, are there no Protestants in Iraq? There used to be a few. What about the Orthodox Christians, in a number of different Eastern and even Oriental traditions? There are Orthodox Christians in the Middle East (think Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, for example) who continue to celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, according to the ancient Julian calendar. Are they being forced to close their doors this year, as well?

Again, I understand that the Chaldeans are the dominant church. Still, I think it would have been good to include some material on how the current crisis is affecting other bodies. Are some being hurt worse than others?

Just asking. Yes, as an Orthodox Christian I admit that I am sensitive on this issue, in large part because of the years I spent worshiping in an overwhelmingly Arab parish in South Florida. All of the Christians in the Middle East feel abandoned and the realities on the ground are quite complex and, yes, they deserve coverage.

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