Christmas festivities canceled in Iraq after new Al Qaeda threats
KIRKUK, Iraq — Iraqi Christians called off Christmas festivities across the country yesterday as Al Qaeda insurgents threatened more attacks on a beleaguered community still terrified from a bloody siege at a Baghdad church two months earlier.
A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public Christmas celebrations out of concern over new terror attacks and as a show of mourning for the victims of the church siege and other violence.
Church officials in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, the southern city of Basra, and in the capital confirmed they will not put up Christmas decorations or hold evening Mass, and they have urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus was called off.
“Nobody can ignore the threats of Al Qaeda against Iraqi Christians,’’ said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. “We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak.’’
Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since a Baghdad church attack in October that killed 68 people. Days later insurgents targeted Christian homes across the capital with a series of bombs.
An Al Qaeda front group that claimed responsibility for the church siege vowed at the time to carry out a reign of terror against Christians.
The Islamic State of Iraq renewed its threats in a message posted late Tuesday on a website frequented by Islamic extremists. The group said it wants the release of two women it claims are being held captive by Egypt’s Coptic Church.
Muslim extremists in Egypt say the church has detained the women for allegedly converting to Islam. The church denies the allegations. The message Tuesday was addressed to Iraq’s Christian community and said it was designed to “pressure’’ Egypt. Sunni Muslim extremists that make up such groups as Al Qaeda perceive Christians to be nonbelievers aligned with Western countries.
Few reliable statistics exist on the number of Christians in this nation of 29 million. A State Department report says Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 remain, down from a prewar level that some estimates had as high as 1.4 million.
Since the deadly church siege, the United Nations estimates about 1,000 Christian families have fled to northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, which is generally much safer.
For those who remain, this Christmas will be a somber affair.
In Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, Sako said a traditional Santa Claus appearance outside one of the city’s churches has been called off, along with religious events.
Even among Iraqi Christians who have managed to escape the violence, the mood was subdued.
Maher Murqous, an Iraqi Christian from Mosul who fled to neighboring Syria after being threatened by militants, said his relatives are still at risk in Iraq. Since they cannot celebrate, neither will he.