BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the coming days, Anwar Nasser Ali will dust off the family Christmas tree and string its artificial pine boughs with colored lights. He won't be the only Muslim doing so.
In Iraq, where the overwhelming majority of people are Islamic, Christmas crosses the religious divide.
The country's 600,000 Christians celebrate the holiday in traditional ways. They attend church services that mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Their children awake on Christmas morning to find the gaily wrapped packages left by Baba Noel, the Arabic name for Santa Claus.
Muslims observe the holiday, too, but for a different reason.
"We put up the tree, decorate it with disco lights and welcome the New Year," said Ali, a pharmacist and a secular Shiite Muslim.
Observant Muslims who fast during the holy month of Ramadan -- now under way -- join in the Christmas festivities, if only to decorate their shops.
"All through the country -- in hotels, stores, restaurants and Muslim houses -- you can see the tree of Christmas," said the Rev. Joseph Habbi, an Iraqi Catholic. "New Year's is an official fest for all Iraqis, not only Christians."
This time of year, the mix of religion and culture produces an array of contrasts.
At the Al Rashid, Baghdad's five-star hotel, visitors entering the marble lobby walk over an inlaid picture of George Bush -- who as president oversaw the Persian Gulf war bombardment of Iraq. The marble slab reads, "Bush Is Criminal."
The lobby also features a hearty Christmas tree, with all the trimmings, and a 5-foot statue of Santa Claus.
In the parish office of St. Joseph's Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Chaldean community, a Christmas garland is strung across a picture of St. Barbara. Nearby hangs a decorative plate featuring the face of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim.
The Rev. Louis Shabi, the pastor of St. Joseph's, doesn't find the Muslim interest in Christianity surprising.
"You will see [images of] Mary and Jesus Christ in their houses," said Shabi, whose congregation includes 2,500 families.
Also, Jesus is considered a prophet by Muslims.
The appreciation of Christmas in this overwhelmingly Muslim country reflects the unique standing of Christians in Iraqi society.
The spires and crosses of 50 churches share the Baghdad skyline with the lighted minarets and tiled domes of mosques.
In addition, churches are being built. The sound of church bells mingles with the Muslim calls to prayer.
Christians represent about 5 percent of Iraq's population of 2 million. Hussein's secular government has ensured their right to worship freely. And unlike Iran, Iraq does not preclude members of religious minorities from holding high-ranking government jobs. For example, Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, is a Christian.
The Iraqi Christian community dates to the first century, according to Habbi, the dean of the Babel College of Philosophy and Theology in Baghdad.
"We were evangelized by Thomas the Apostle and his disciples," said Habbi, 60. "We have no differences, because our common life is from the beginning of Islam. In the West, you always speak of the tension. There is no tension here in Iraq."
Christians here live a freer religious life than in Egypt and Jordan, said Habbi. Though Iraqi Christians must attend government schools, the catechism can be taught if they constitute 25 percent of a school's student body, Habbi said.
"Under this regime, this government, also this president, there is no discrimination," said Habbi. "Everybody who is Christian has Muslim friends, and we work together."
Babel College, established in 1991, has 120 students and 50 seminarians (those studying for the priesthood), he said. The college employs Muslims and Christians.
The Iraqi Christian community includes Latin, Syrian, Armenian and Chaldean Catholics (the latter speak Aramaic), Syrian and Greek Orthodox, Assyrians, Copts and Evangelicals. The Orthodox groups account for 52.5 percent of Iraqi Christians, according to the Middle East Council of Churches.
Also, eight orders of nuns work in the country.
Hussein's regime has been ruthless with opponents, critics and rebels. But Iraqi Christians have not experienced the problems of other Christian communities in the region, said Michel Nahhal, a Lebanese Christian who is the Iraqi representative of the church council.
"They're not harassed, by any means," he said. "On the contrary, they are respected highly. There's a saying in Iraq: 'If you want to succeed in any trade, hire a Christian.' This reflects the high esteem in which they are held."
The Iraqi government "is very keen about maintaining a secular society," he added. "With a secular government, we are doing well."
In some ways, Christians have more liberties than Muslims here because their religion isn't so strict, said Nahhal.
"Our women are more liberal, they work, they are educated, they have professions," he said, while many Islamic women remain at home. "Our religion may permit us to be more free than the Muslims, but we are all one."
While Christians have existed here for centuries, a wave of immigration occurred after World War I, when Christians were expelled from Turkey, Nahhal said.
Those given jobs in the oil fields became part of the middle class. Others went to work in hotels, restaurants and bars, and became the sellers of alcohol, he said.
Alcohol is forbidden in Islam. But it was sold in bars and restaurants until the 1991 Persian Gulf war. After Iraq's defeat, alcohol was banned here to appease fundamentalist Muslims, Nahhal said.
The international sanctions imposed on Iraq after the war and the joblessness resulting from the alcohol ban led many Christians to emigrate. About 200,000 Christians left for the United States, Jordan, France, Sweden, Turkey and elsewhere.
Though Christian parishes have lost members, the construction of churches suggests that the Christian community is vital. St. George's Church in the New Baghdad neighborhood has 2,500 families. It supports a kindergarten, offers counseling for women, sponsors Bible lectures, holds catechism classes and runs an outreach programs for prisoners.
"That's in one parish," said Habbi, the pastor of St. George's.
The Christian community here will have to rely on its youth to increase the fold; proselytizing among the Muslim majority is forbidden.
"Two months ago, we had about 10 couples married here," said Shabi of St. Joseph's Church.
But the focus this week is on Christmas. Creches are going up in churches. Inflatable Santas are on sale in the stores. Men dressed as Baba Noel are visiting children. Preparations are under way for Christmas Eve Mass.
If the holiday parties are less public this year, it's because Christmas coincides with the holy month of Ramadan. Samira Yusef remembers the Christmas party two years ago at the Ashur Club.
"We were in the party until morning. Half were Muslims. I invite Maha," she said of her Muslim co-worker, who wears a head scarf in the tradition of religious Islamic women.
Of her Christian friend, Maha Abdel Majid says, "She is like my sister. We never differentiate between us."
Yusef concurred with a smile, "Christmas is for everybody."
Pub Date: 12/23/98