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How religious holidays are uniting Iraqi Muslims and Christians

Iraqi Muslims celebrated Christmas to show solidarity with Christians last year, while the Chaldean Catholic Church announced a day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan this year to show that all Iraqis are united.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate in Iraq called on Christians to fast one day during the holy month of Ramadan. On June 17, Iraqi Christians fasted alongside the Muslim community. The patriarchate’s statement said, “For one day, [Christians] will show solidarity with the fasting Muslims; they will pray for peace and stability in Iraq and the region, as well as for the consolidation of the culture of brotherhood, love and coexistence.”

Father Maysar Bahnam of Mar Korkis Catholic Church in Baghdad told Al-Monitor, “Christians are organizing activities to reach out to Muslims. Our church organized on June 9 an iftar [meal served at sunset] for the fasting Muslims, as an annual tradition that promotes coexistence between Christians and Muslims.”

The official in charge of the church’s Social Committee, Issam Maskouni, told Al-Monitor, “Organizing an iftar for Muslims provides a meeting point for Muslims and Christians far from sectarian bickering and in an atmosphere free from the hate speech and divisive rhetoric prevailing in the political scene.”

For his part, Louis Raphael I Sako, the current Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon and the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, told Al-Monitor, “These initiatives are not new to the Chaldean Church and other churches of Iraq. Churches have always provided aid to all Iraqis without exception. They distributed food to refugees fleeing the oppression of the Islamic State [IS], and they did this on different occasions and in different camps. Churches provided medicines to charitable clinics, organized iftars for the fasting Muslims, and hosted and provided care for displaced university students to allow them to complete their academic year or graduate.”

During the holy month of Ramadan this year, social activity in Iraq painted an accurate picture of the Iraqis’ unity in a country reeling with political division.

Farah al-Ata (Joy of Giving), a nongovernmental organization run by a Muslim woman and that promotes tolerance and coexistence in the Iraqi society, organized June 30 an iftar for Muslims in the Church of Assumption of Virgin Mary in Mansour, Baghdad.

Suhaila al-Aasam, the director of Farah al-Ata, told Al-Monitor, “These events confirm the ideas that Christian churches are open to hold iftars for Muslims during Ramadan; that Muslims, Christians and other components in Iraq coexist in love and peace; and that Iraq is not just about hatred and violence, as it is portrayed by the media.”

Karar Rafaat, a young Feyli Kurd who attended the iftar at the church along with dozens of other young people, told Al-Monitor, “It is an opportunity for a young man like me to go into a church and mix with young men from the other components of the Iraqi society. Today Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans were sitting together around one table.”

Representatives of the Yazidis, Baha'is and Mandaeans also attended the iftar at the church.

Khaldoun al-Nisani, a member of the Yazidi Cultural Association in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Every Christian who enters a mosque and every Muslim who enters a church to participate in social and religious events would be defeating IS in his own way. This is a special fight against extremism by youth and peacemakers.”

He said that he is looking forward to organizing a similar event and added, “We witnessed today an Islamic ritual being practiced at a Christian house of worship. We will invite Christians and Muslims to celebrate a Yazidi holiday in Lalish, a Yazidi sacred temple.”

Such events convey a strong positive message by the Christian Church, which comes after the cancellation by the Christians in Iraq of the Christmas festivities in 2015.

Sako had called in a pastoral letter for the cancellation of the Christmas festivities. The patriarch stressed that the year 2015 was the worst year for Christians as a result of the systematic spread of the radical ideology against Christians, and in light of the religious coercion and discrimination against religious minorities caused by Article 26 of the unified national card law on the Islamization of minors, and the attempts to impose the veil on Christian women.

Sako refused to receive politicians who wanted to wish him a good Christmas holiday and limited the festivities to prayers and solemn reflection. However, civil society organizations turned Christmas from a Christian occasion into a time for unity and celebration of diversity.

Within the scope of the workshop titled “Unity in diversity” organized by the Masarat Institute for Cultural and Media Development, Muslims in Iraq celebrated Christmas, based on the idea that if Christians cancel the Christmas festivities because of the harsh circumstances they are facing, Muslims will celebrate this holiday to show solidarity with their Iraqi brethren.

Hussein Shaker, a young Muslim man who took part in the Christmas festivities, told Al-Monitor, “I headed with hundreds of young people to Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad, and we lit candles in solidarity with the Christians and celebrated Christmas as an occasion for unity among Iraqis. This reflected the true image of Iraq that young people around me believe in.”

Youth groups in other provinces celebrated Christmas too. Mawja youth group organized a Christmas celebration in Najaf, the holy city for Shiites, where young volunteers set up a Christmas tree and wore Santa Claus outfits in an eye-catching sight in this conservative and Muslim city.

Yasser Makki, one of the volunteers, told Al-Monitor, “Our youths are delivering a great message about the need to combat hatred and tension by turning a Christian religious celebration into an occasion celebrated by both Muslims and Christians.”

He added, “To hold this event in the Shiite city of Najaf — near the sacred Shiite shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi-Talib — represents the strongest message of solidarity with Christians.”

In Iraq — a country plagued by religious, ethnic and sectarian divisions — the initiatives such as Christians fasting during Ramadan and Muslims taking part in Christmas celebrations reflect the desire to create unity and reject division. Solidarity and coexistence promoted during Christian and Muslim religious holidays paints another picture as the one portrayed in the media.

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