Iraqi Christians return and celebrate cautiously

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD - Three years ago, a note appeared at Lita Kaseer's door. It contained a bullet and a one-word message: "Leave."

Kaseer did flee, along with hundreds of other Christian families from the Dora neighborhood in southern Baghdad, once a vibrant Christian community.

This year, she returned home from Syria, and yesterday she attended Christmas Mass with her husband and 7-month-old son.

"It's always better to come home," said her husband, Khalid Kamil, 34. "In any other place, you are a stranger. ... This is not the way our life should be."

Hundreds of Christians gathered to celebrate Christmas in Baghdad, most acknowledging that improved security conditions have allowed them to move more freely throughout the city after returning from years-long exiles in Syria, Egypt, Jordan or Iraq's northern Kurdistan region.

In the Christian neighborhood of Karada, a Santa Claus handed out religious CDs and pamphlets, including 25 Stories from the Bible and The Greatest Gift. In recent years, such an act could have resulted in death.

Christians are estimated to make up less than 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million population, and some reports say that about half fled after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

At least 600 holiday worshippers packed the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in the Karada neighborhood, where a flashing red-and-gold Christmas tree adorned the altar. Women wore their hair uncovered and came dressed in their holiday finest - festive red sweaters and skirts, bejeweled jeans and knee-high, lace-up boots.

For the first time in memory, the Iraqi government declared Christmas a national holiday. And last week, a community event was held at a local park to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Large posters depicting a portrait of Jesus and a Christmas tree could be spotted around town.

"As Christians, we feel like we have a real presence in Iraq - and rights," said Lena Ayat, 19.

"I feel safer," said her mother, Lameya Mashreq. "We are free to choose the clothes that we wear."

Not that conditions are ideal throughout Iraq.

In the northern city of Mosul, more than 900 Christian families fled as recently as October after attacks by Sunni Arabs. Christians there celebrated more privately, fearing militants and violence.

Samir Yusef said he and his wife finally returned to their home in Baghdad's Dora district three months ago after being displaced for two years. About 30 percent of the Christian families have returned to the once predominantly Christian neighborhood, he said. Although it is safer, Dora remains difficult to maneuver because of roadblocks and security checkpoints, and more improvement is needed, he said.

A group of Muslim women, garbed in their black abayas, stuck out among the crowd at the church, sitting together in one pew. Zahara Abdulwahid Al-Issa said she came to make a special Christmas wish this year.

"I was pleading with the Virgin Mary so that my three daughters will get married," Al-Issa said. "I brought flowers, and if they get married, I will come back again."

Al-Issa said she was moved by the Mass.

"I was here during the whole time, and my body had shivers from the chorus and the prayers," she said. "Until now, I still have the shivers."

But even as worshippers gathered, violence struck a few miles away. A car bomb exploded yesterday near a popular restaurant in northwestern Baghdad, killing four people and injuring 25.

In the Diyala province, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, a suicide car bomber targeted an American patrol convoy in front of the Muqdadiya police station. Three civilians were killed and 14 injured, including four Iraqi police officers, authorities said.

On large bases and small outposts across the country, American troops marked Christmas with special meals and chapel services.

At Forward Operating Base Prosperity, in the heart of Baghdad, Capt. Jonathan Hilton took a moment yesterday to think about his family.

"I miss my family. This is my second Christmas here," said Hilton, of Orlando, Fla. "We are close to going home, and they are doing a great job of taking care of soldiers and letting us experience Christmas as best they can."

On the other side of Baghdad, Army Sgt. Robin Cameron, 29, of Leesville, La., knows it's not just another day. In quiet moments, he will let his mind drift to his wife and two children.

But sometimes, he says, it's just easier not to think about what you're missing.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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