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Harsh reality for Iraq Christians

Violence mars holiday season

BAGHDAD -- At first glance, it seemed like a regular Christmas at Bassem Khedhr's home yesterday -- a green tree with flickering lights stood in the living room, everyone was dressed in new clothes, and the women baked holiday pastries.

But the hardships of daily life dampened the festivities. Khedhr missed Christmas Mass because he had to fix the house's generator, and his mother was jolted awake in the morning by four explosions.

Security concerns ruled out past treats such as a visit to the amusement park. Khedhr has virtually banned pleasure trips of any kind for his family because of Baghdad's violence and crime.

''It doesn't feel like it's Christmas," said Khedhr, 39, an electrical appliance repairman. ''I bought this Christmas tree so that I could look at it and remember what Christmas felt like -- only remember, not celebrate."

Khedhr sat under oversized rosary beads that adorn a wall of the old, drab house he shares with 12 relatives. Khedhr and his family are Chaldeans, members of an Eastern rite church that is loyal to the pope, but does not follow the Roman Catholic Church's rites.

In many ways, Khedhr says, his Christian community suffers from the same woes that trouble Iraqis from other religious and ethnic groups. But with thousands of Christians fleeing a country growing increasingly Islamic and conservative, his family feels a little more vulnerable this Christmas.

This year, the holiday comes as the religious Shi'ite Muslim coalition that dominates the current government looks set to become the largest bloc in Iraq's first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

Khedhr said he refrained from voting for Christian candidates in the Dec. 15 election because he felt the Christian community is too small to affect the results. In the vote last Jan. 30 for an interim legislature, the main Christian slate won just one of the 275 seats.

This time, Khedhr voted for a coalition led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite.

''But I told my friends that I voted for 555 so no one would harass me," he said, referring to the candidate list number of the religious Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance. ''The Sunnis are backed by their tribes. So are the Shi'ites. But us Christians don't have support, so I seek protection from a Shi'ite tribe."

Christians make up an estimated 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million people. Thousands have fled Iraq since several churches were blown up by car bombs in 2004.

Christmas was bittersweet for Khedhr's wife, Sahera Eissa, 28. Her parents and all her relatives now live outside Iraq. Some left under Hussein; others followed after the US-led invasion.

''This is our country, but I feel homesick because my family is away," she said.

Eissa went out just once yesterday -- to Christmas Mass at a nearby church. ''I wanted Mass to end quickly because I was afraid," she said. ''My children want to go out, but I am scared for them because of the explosions."

She feels constrained by the lack of security in the city.

''I want to show off my new clothes, but there is no place to go," Eissa said. She had on her special jewelry: gold hoop earrings; two gold necklaces, a cross dangling from one of them; and bracelets and rings. But she said she would take the gold off later yesterday before going out to visit her sister-in-law's parents, for fear of thieves and kidnappers.

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