BAGHDAD — With every year, Christmas in Baghdad is marked with more festivities than the year before. Is this merely a celebration of joy or a deep expression of solidarity with the threatened Christian minority?
Commercial streets such Karada, al-Mansour, Palestine and Zaytouna are adorned with Christmas trees and Santa Claus. Zawraa park in the center of the capital is hosting a giant Christmas tree, offered by one of the businessmen, while commercial malls and stores are displaying trees that are bigger than usual.
Sama mall, a large shopping complex in the Karada area, set up a 7-meter-high (23 feet) tree, while displaying toys and New Year's decorations for sale.
In this context, Sama mall staff officer Ammar Hussein said the sales are high despite the declining purchasing power given the financial crises and the austerity plan by the Iraqi government.
“Muslims are buying Christmas trees among other related goods. The shops are frequented by both the poor and the rich,” Hussein told Al-Monitor, stressing that “Muslims love to share this holiday season with their compatriots” and the “injustices done to the Christians are not caused by Muslims but by those who hate Iraq.”
Mohammed and his veiled wife, Umm Youssef, were among the buyers in the mall. They purchased a small Christmas tree and some gifts and took pictures with their children in front of the giant tree.
“This is the most joyful time of the year,” Mohammed told Al-Monitor. “We do not need proof of coexistence. We are one people. We like to celebrate Christmas like the rest of the Islamic holidays,” Umm Youssef said.
In previous years, Christians used to fast with Muslims during the month of Ramadan. They also suspended public celebrations in 2012, when the Christmas holiday coincided with Arbaeen (Arbaeen means “40” in Arabic; it takes place on the 40th day after the anniversary of the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein bin Ali in 680), which is the saddest event for Shiite Muslims.
Christian and Muslim clerics also take part in the different occasions and events of both religions, while several Muslim politicians have also attended occasions held in churches. Despite this optimism, many question marks hang over the fate of one of Iraq’s oldest religions.
Iraq is home to some of the oldest churches in history, such as the Kukhy church in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Many of Iraq’s churches were destroyed after the Islamic State (IS) invaded and took over Mosul, including al-Khadra Church in Salahuddin governorate. Christians were displaced and required to pay the Jizya (protection tax), as per Sharia, imposed on non-Muslims. If they don’t wish to pay this tax, Christians have either to convert to Islam or leave.
Many Christian activists believe that many of them are leaving Iraq along with other minorities in the country. In this context, Walim Warda, the coordinator at the Hammurabi human rights organization, told Al-Monitor, “If things continue down this path and the authorities fail to provide guarantees and protection for Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq, they will eventually leave the country.”
He also noted that half of Mosul's displaced persons are Christians who have already left Iraq, and their numbers are only increasing.
“IS, which committed atrocities against Christians, displacing and killing them, is not the only reason they are leaving the country. It is also partly because of the government’s policies, as parliament did not respond to minorities’ demands to amend Article 26 of the National ID law, which stipulates that minors become Muslims should one of their parents convert to Islam,” Warda said.
Warda also accused those parliament members who voted for banning the sale of alcohol of harming the business and livelihoods of Christian and Yazidi merchants.
He also blamed the Iraqi government for being negligent in protecting minorities and for the murder of a Christian man named Jiji Dawoud al-Qiss Botros in Basra on Oct. 26. “This was further reason for Christians to leave Basra, which was not under IS control,” Warda said.
Although Christians have taken many steps to affirm shared living with their Muslim compatriots, they do not receive adequate protection. The Dora district in southern Baghdad, which was inhabited by many Christians, witnessed assaults, and its inhabitants started to be displaced in 2004.
In southern governorates of the country, Christian women are forced to wear the hijab or clothing in line with Muslim traditions. One of the most horrific incidents, however, was when al-Qaeda militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation Church in central Baghdad during service, took hostages and killed worshipers in October 2010.
This was the beginning of the Christian exodus, which peaked with the IS occupation of Ninevah governorate.
The Iraqi Constitution emphasizes respect for the different components of Iraq’s society, Christians in particular, which ought to be a strong and basic reference that can be built on to provide protection for minorities. However, the main problem lies in the mechanisms to enforce the constitution.
In this context, the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Baghdad, Monsignor Pius Kasha, told Al-Monitor, “Christian clerics are calling on Christians to remain in the country, as they are one of the main components of Iraq.” He said that the churches will be making the same call in the new year. “IS atrocities left Christians frightened of living in Iraq; [they] now believe it is no longer safe for them to stay here,” he said.
“IS was not the only one to treat Christians as war spoils and to loot them; some neighbors did the same. How could they rob us?” he added.
For his part, moderate Muslim cleric Raheem Abu Raghif told Al-Monitor, “We ought to rethink the religious sources in order to provide a nonviolent interpretation of them. We must build a new understanding of religion based on the principle of citizenship, rather than discriminating against citizens based on their religions.”
Hence, the Christmas celebrations are an opportunity to promote coexistence, but the political act remains the most important step to be taken as authorities have to take it upon themselves to provide adequate protection and security for minorities to lead as decent a life as the rest of their compatriots do.