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Fear and Defiance Mark Christmas for Iraqi Christians

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After a year of church bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats, many Christians in predominantly Muslim Iraq have canceled plans to attend Christmas observances this year. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu went to a Christmas Eve mass in Baghdad and reports that only a few people braved the dangers of going to church.

Catholic Priest Peter Haddad shakes his head with disappointment, as he looks across the rows of empty pews at the Virgin Mary Church in central Baghdad.

It is Christmas Eve and barely 70 people are sitting in a church built to hold more than 700. "If you [had] seen this church some years ago, [there was] no place to sit! All the churches [were] full of people, even here and even in the streets," said Father Haddad.

Attendance across Iraq's churches has plummeted in the past year as attacks against Iraqi-Christians and churches have soared.

The attacks include the coordinated bombings in August of four churches in Baghdad and another in the northern city of Mosul. Earlier this week, there were reports three more churches in Mosul were damaged by improvised bombs.

Iraqi-Christians say Muslim extremists are targeting them in the belief that the American-led war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an attack by the Christian West against Islam. Affluent Christians have also become the favorite target of criminal gangs who prey on them because of their ability to pay large ransoms.

Unable to cope with the rising insecurity, as many as 50,000 of Iraq's 800,000 Christians are believed to have fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria in the past year and a half.

Those who have stayed in Iraq are doing as little as possible to bring attention to themselves, including avoiding church on Christmas Eve. Some churches have canceled Christmas services altogether - something unheard of even during Saddam's reign.

Inside the Virgin Mary Church Friday night, the small congregation singing Christmas songs was the only indication that this was a mass to celebrate Christmas.

There were no lights or decorations adorning the walls of the church. Many worshipers shunned bright-colored clothing and some women kept their faces hidden behind scarves.

Outside, 20 heavily armed Iraqi National Guards in black ski masks stood guarding the church entrance. Concrete blocks and gun-mounted military Humvee vehicles sealed off the road in front of the church to prevent an attack.

Despite the gloomy and tense atmosphere, Dalida Sarkis, 31, says she came to church determined to keep up the Christmas spirit.

Ms. Sarkis says she refuses to be intimidated by fear because she believes God will protect her. But the young mother of four quickly adds that if the security situation deteriorates further for Christians, she may have no choice but to leave Iraq.

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