Christmas Mass in Iraq. Photo by Lee Cracker via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas in Baghdad

After the new outbreak of violence in Iraq, here are men and women for whom life is a sacrifice, because it is for Christ.
Walid Al-Iraqi

They are threatened in the market and their children have stopped going to school, while others have run away. But they stay there, and wait “with trepidation” for Jesus who is born, to celebrate Him in their homes. After the new outbreak of violence in Iraq, here are men and women for whom life is a sacrifice, because it is for Christ.

For many, the feast is at home, not in church, so as not to be targeted, to avoid as much as possible the danger that Christmas becomes another occasion for martyrdom, a Slaughter of the Innocents anticipated on December 25th. It is sad to think of it, but in Baghdad, as in other parts of the world, Christians live like this–crucified, persecuted, humiliated, and killed, like the scores of victims in the assault on the Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral on October 31st, and others who die violently every day.

We went there, to where they live, to gather their stories. It is, first of all, a way of not leaving them on their own, to not forget, and to do all we can, beginning with prayer and memory. But the journey has another scope. They are us, brothers in faith, but also witnesses of that strange factor of human experience, that “point where all the waters flow together,” as Fr. Giussani wrote in one of the most intense chapters of Is it Possible To Live This Way?, because “…there is no faith, nor hope, nor love; no beauty, no goodness, no justice… without this–it’s called sacrifice.” Read the stories of Senah, Hisham, Shimoun, and Wasim (their names have been changed for protection). You will find something surprising in its simplicity. Their witness shows that sacrifice is not only the extreme suffering that risks even martyrdom, the possibility that your life be taken for the faith. The sacrifice is life itself, giving it for Christ, to Christ.

This is asked of them, that in answering yes to that question that they are often asked with hostile eyes (“Are you a Christian?”), it is as if they were giving their own names, literally giving themselves up. But we, too, are asked the same question, we “Western Christians,” who will perhaps never be blown up because of the madness of a suicide bomber, but who have the same need and the same opportunity for fullness, in “the offer of your own life to Christ as a sharing in His death. So even the sacrifice of getting up in the morning … becomes a good.”

We are talking about giving your life to Christ, as He gave His for us, on the Cross, the supreme sacrifice–but even before this by becoming flesh, being born in a cave (He, God!), and giving every instant of His life for our lives and for the work of the Father. “The greatest sacrifice is to give your life for the work of an Other.” This, too, is why we pray for the Christians of Baghdad.

My name is Senah. I am 69 years old, a retired teacher and mother of a brain-damaged child, named Brahim. I live in the Karrada district of Baghdad. It’s hard for me to find the money I need for the medicine to calm my Brahim; some people give us a hand, even Muslims–in particular, two friends of mine. Our life as Iraqi Christians these days can be summed up in two words: fear and hope–above all, fear. I am afraid to live in my country, in the city where I was born. I love Iraq more than my life, and would rather die myself than see one of my daughters or sons die at the hands of terrorists. We are used to the terrorism: since 2003, it has been hard being a Christian in this country, because of Al Qaeda and the militias who persecute us, but the situation has worsened since the massacre in the Cathedral. I know at least three families of Christians, friends of mine, who are packing their bags to run away. Others are already abroad. Personally, we have not been threatened, but every day we know we are targets as part of a community. Despite this, I want to stay. Here are preserved the memories of our childhood, the memory of our history in the name of Christ that spread in these dusty streets and now in the blood of our brothers that has been shed. It’s for their sake, too, that I don’t want to go away. In these years, we have found ourselves witnessing the faith, gathering in church or, in turn, in our homes, and even here in this tiny apartment, at least once a week, even in the darkest days. This Christmas will be a bit different from the last one. It will be a great trial for the Christians remaining in Iraq. Last year, we went to church; this time, we will probably celebrate Christmas in someone’s home. I ask our brothers overseas: don’t forget us; we need not to feel alone.

Iam Shimoun, and I am 25 years old. I am sorry that I did not want to be photographed in front of the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Baghdad, as I would have wished in different circumstances. I feel to be betraying it in some way. It is the church that raised me, where I have lived unforgettable moments. But, these days, we Christians feel hunted. A friend told me that there are people going around asking for me: “Where is Shimoun? If you see him, tell him Iraq is not the place for him; it is better that he disappears.” I can’t go to the police, because some of them may be in contact with the bands who are hunting for me. After the massacre in the Cathedral, I keep having nightmares. I have good relationships with Muslims, but I don’t trust some of my acquaintances, so I have taken a Muslim name, Abbas, to hide the real identity that my name reveals. I have stopped working and mixing with the community. Before Bloody Sunday [the attack on the Cathedral of Saydat Al-Najat], I used to go to the celebrations; we used to meet at least once a week to pray and eat together. Now we feel rather isolated, far from the Church of Rome. Christmas is coming, an occasion for us to feel united. We will celebrate the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters who have been killed. My father would like to send my sister and my youngest brother to study in Jordan; being here it is very difficult with all the violence and the bribes you are asked to pay. One of my sister’s teachers, a Muslim, sent us a Christmas present which gave us some joy: a map of Iraq with three hearts, one for each of the religious confessions.

My name is Hisham. I am 29 years old, and I work and live in the Karrada district near the Tigris River. I have received two death threats. The first was three years ago, because I was working with Americans. They pushed a note under my door: “Leave that job at once or your family will get your remains in a bag.” The other one was a month ago, because I am a Christian. I went to a square where unemployed people gather in the morning. I was looking for bricklayers to help a friend of mine build his house. One of them asked me, “Why are you still in Iraq? You Christians will all die if you stay. Go away or your house will be your tomb.” After three days, the attacks began, culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre. And to think we were living in peace with the Muslims... We would help those in need, and if we couldn’t, we would ask the Church to help. We were even paid back: I have a Muslim friend who donated a kidney for transplant when my father was in danger of death. Now, things have changed. So we are waiting for Christmas in fear. It is the moment that always gives us spiritual energy for going on, for looking forward with trust to the coming year. But this Christmas will be particularly difficult; those who can will try to spend it abroad. I hope to go to Lebanon with my family to start a new life. We had thought the worst had passed. Last Christmas, we spent the whole night out after Mass, celebrating, but now we are afraid once again. My father has just gone to the rector of the university where my sister is studying biology to ask for two months of vacation; we are afraid she will be kidnapped. We are going ahead, but this country is wrecked. The only ones who benefit are the Shiites and Kurds. Sunnis and Christians get nothing. And it’s even worse for us, because we have no nearby country supporting us.

I was in the bazaar in Al Jadida a few days ago, buying vegetables. Someone I don’t know came up to me and asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I answered, “Yes,” and he went on, “You’d better go away; the Mahdi Army [the Shiite militia of Moqtada Al Sadr] doesn’t like infidels like you.” I did not say anything to my family so as not to make them panic, but I called my son who has been living in Syria since 2007 and asked him to find a way for us to reach him. My name is Wasim and I’m 67 years old, a retired clerk. For Christians, it’s dangerous to move around; some zones in Baghdad are off limits. Before the war, we had no problems with the Muslims; we were living peaceably side by side, in mutual respect. The Christian community would meet on Sundays and feast days. At times, we would call the priest to come to pray in our homes. Even at work, we would often meet together to chat. In the university, too, as my eldest son told me, before 2003, the Christian students would get together, especially on Sundays and feast days, in an atmosphere of joy. We are a joyful people. Things are tougher now. We are waiting for this Christmas with patience and trust, but we hope to celebrate it in Syria, in safety. If we stay here, we will celebrate Jesus’ birth at home. It will be rather sad for the children, too. After the recent violence, we stopped sending our children to school for fear of kidnapping, even though the teachers and some of their classmates have been kind and consoled us after Bloody Sunday. The Church is supporting us; after the massacre, the priests and their collaborators came around to our homes to comfort us: “The world will not keep silent before these attacks on the Christians,” they told us. “Don’t feel alone.” Life is a great school and these sufferings have taught us to share the pain that even our Muslim brothers have had to bear in these years. The result of the elections in March with the victory of Allawi [leader of an inter-confessional coalition] gave us some hope for the future. Now, with the new government [led again by the Shiites], everything has changed. We have to be optimistic, but I don’t think that the reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis will last, because peace is not in the interest of our neighboring countries.