Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi Christians not in festive mood

AFP , BAGHDAD

A US soldier distributes Christmas gifts to Iraqi Christian children in Baghdad on Monday.

PHOTO: EPA

The Santa Claus in the window of Najeeba John's store is a sad metaphor for the first Iraqi Christmas since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The toy Santa is supposed to sing and dance but he just stands there without moving.

"Unfortunately, we don't have any electricity," says John.

Iraqi Christians say they won't be dancing either for Christmas.

The usual parties, and even Christmas Eve church, are out of the question. It's just not safe here, they say.

"We are afraid of explosions," said Nasreen Thomas, 30, a dentist.

"Under the old regime we celebrated until the wee hours but this year we can't ... Maybe I won't go out of my house," Thomas said.

Since US and British troops invaded in March to end more than two decades of dictatorship under Saddam, the US-led coalition has been battling insurgents who target troops and their "collaborators" like Iraqi police.

Innocent civilians sometimes get hurt in the roadside bombings or grenade attacks meant for security forces.

Baghdad is subject to rotating power blackouts, and buying gasoline for a car can require sleeping overnight in a long queue.

"There is nothing. We will sit at home and we won't even go to church. Where will we go? There are no clubs, nothing," said Danny Rass, 51, inside his small liquor store in Baghdad's Karada district, where many in Iraq's Christian minority live.

Next door, Laith Calotti and his staff were busy selling flowers and Christmas supplies. Business is good, said Calotti, 26.

"But we are afraid. We are afraid of everything," he said.

Maha Salam walked out with a bag of miniature Christmas lights but she was not in a party mood.

"There will be no parties. The electricity is no good. There is no gasoline. This will have a big impact. We will just stay at home," said Salam, who ran a sweet shop until the war. She is too afraid to reopen, she said.

"Who is happy to celebrate Christmas?" asked Sabieh Isho, 52, a liquor-store owner.

"This year the celebration has been canceled because there is no security," he said.

Saddam ruled with the support of the minority Sunni Islamic community while oppressing the Shiite majority of Iraq's estimated 26 million people.

His fall has led to fears of sectarian strife and prompted a call for unity on Sunday by the newly appointed leader of Iraq's largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholic Church.

"All Iraq is our homeland. Iraq is for us all, from north to south," said Patriarch Monsignor Emmanuelle-Karim Delly, 76, during a ceremony for his installation held in Baghdad.

Monsignor Ishlemon Wardouni, in a homily to welcome Delly, said the new patriarch had been chosen amid "cruel conditions" in his country.

"We are asking God to help him in his ship, especially in these times, to reach the harbor of peace," said Wardouni, who was interim patriarch before Delly assumed leadership of the world's Chaldeans.

Iraq's estimated 700,000 Chaldeans are the country's largest Christian denomination.

They worshipped without restriction under Saddam, and still do. But with Iraq's government structure still undecided, they face the future with uncertainty.

"Saddam loved the Christians. That's a fact. Now we still don't know. It's only been six or eight months," Calotti said.

Thomas, a stylishly-dressed woman, expressed concern she might be forced to wear Islamic garb.

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