Christians celebrate a wary Christmas in Baghdad
At church bombed a year ago, parishioners work to rebuild
and hope for end to violence
Ben Gilbert, Chronicle Foreign Service
December 24, 2005
Baghdad -- Christmas songs in Arabic echo into the
courtyard from a tiny annex, next to the incomplete main building
of St. George Greek Catholic Church. Inside, Father Vincent conducts
choir practice for the Christmas Day celebration.
Teenage girls in winter jackets stand in a semicircle around
Vincent, singing Christmas songs, while a dozen younger boys
and girls look on from green cushioned pews arranged on the concrete
floor. On the wall behind the priest, a crucifix shows signs
of the sectarian violence besetting this country: Christ's leg
is broken off, and his outstretched arm is missing an elbow.
In the early morning of Oct. 16, 2004 -- the eve of Ramadan,
the Muslim holy month -- five explosions occurred moments apart,
tearing through five churches around Baghdad. The attacks sent
a distinct message to Iraq's Christians: Get out.
At St. George, stained glass windows shattered, and icons
and pews became fuel for the fire set off by the bomb. By the
time it was put out, whole walls were missing, and the interior
"The inside was black, like an oven," said Vincent,
a Belgian priest who has overseen the church for 25 years and
would give only his first name, for safety reasons. "Even
the floor was completely ruined. The altar was broken ... nothing
remained. All the icons were gone."
But the congregation has succeeded in rebuilding much of the
wreckage. The exterior of the church is complete. Interior walls
have been painted bright white, and electricians have installed
lights for this year's Christmas celebration.
"We started working the night of the bomb," Vincent
said. "We had a baptism the same day, and we called the
boy George. We said, 'This is a living icon now.' "
About 800,000 to 900,000 Iraqi Christians -- about 3 percent
of Iraq's 26 million citizens -- will celebrate Christmas on
Sunday. Their numbers are hard to state with certainty, because
many have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan to escape the
kidnappings, car bombs and other violence plaguing Iraq.
Yonadem Kanna, secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic
Party, estimates that since 2003, about 50,000 Christians have
moved out of Iraq or have moved around within the country to
escape lawlessness and growing Islamic fundamentalism.
"At least 100 families have fled from Basra to Baghdad,
because there are a lot of militias that are practicing religious
fanaticism in the south," he said.
Christians also have left the violent northern city of Mosul
to avoid kidnapping, bans on alcohol and, for women, harassment
for not wearing the traditional Muslim head covering.
Konna is determined to stay. As head of the political party
representing a large ethnic chunk of Iraq's various Christian
sects, including the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian
Eastern Orthodox Church, he said things would get better.
"This is a transitional period," he said. "The
positive side is that for the first time in history, the government
recognizes us as indigenous people of the country, with (the
same) full rights as others."
Among the singers at St. George is Anita Daoud Bedawid, a
22-year-old university student studying philosophy and theology.
She doesn't like being in Iraq, and like many members of the
100 or so families in the congregation, she wants to leave.
"A lot of things have changed in Iraq," she said.
"Every family has a dead person, or a person kidnapped."
Before the war, most churches celebrated an evening Mass on
Christmas Eve. This year, churches are celebrating Mass at 2
or 4 in the afternoon, because it's too dangerous to be out at
Bedawid said she wouldn't let fear keep her in the house.
"We will buy clothes, we will make a cake, and we will
go to my grandmother's to wish Merry Christmas to them,"
Her brother Wasim guarded the church gate with an AK-47. The
family stood in a new dirt courtyard strewn with bags of concrete
and surrounded by an 8-foot wall. Outside, tree trunks are laid
in the road to thwart car bombers.
Their mother, 40-year-old Eklas Hannah Thom, said she couldn't
stay away on Christmas. "I have to come, because this is
God's sacred place," she said.
Across the courtyard, as the sun dipped below the horizon,
civil engineer Khaled Shabbah finished work for the day. So far,
the church has spent $250,000 in reconstruction. The three-story-high
dome is smooth and rounded. Windows have been installed, but
the altar and floor are still bare concrete.
"We were supposed to finish this work before Christmas,
but the place of the explosion became very weak," Shabbah
said. "I had to strengthen the foundation, so that delayed
us to some extent."
Shabbah will attend St. George on Christmas, although he's
not a member of the church. Even Father Vincent is Chaldean Christian,
not Greek Catholic -- he presides at the church because there's
no one else to do it. That's not unusual in Iraq, where most
Christian churches welcome people from other denominations.
For some Iraqi Christians, Christmas is celebrated on Jan.
6 instead of Dec. 25. Yusef, an Armenian Christian using a pseudonym
to protect his identity, said he planned to go that day to his
church club, where men and women can dance together and drink
alcohol uninhibited by their more conservative Muslim neighbors.
He admitted he was worried about safety, even though the church
club is only five minutes from his house.
"I don't know the situation of the country," he
said. "Two years ago, we postponed our Christmas party because
we would be drinking, and Muslims don't think the same way we