Christians in Baghdad are preparing to celebrate their first Christmas after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But for all their newfound freedom, they say the holiday will be tinged with anxiety.
Bells announce the impending start of the Sunday service at the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood.
Madeline Dawood Selman, 51, has come to light a candle in prayer and place it before the large icon of Jesus' mother, Mary, standing just outside the church walls. Mrs. Selman says she is asking God for peace, for love, and for safety. And, she says, she is asking him to give us all more patience, and more faith.
Patience often seems to be in short supply in Baghdad these days. Insurgent bombings and flying mortar rounds almost every night make for a tense atmosphere. Police and military officials say they fear anti-coalition insurgents could strike around Christmas, possibly targeting Iraqi Christians. People are tired of waiting for reliable electricity and telephone service. They want elections now. And many want the captured former dictator Saddam Hussein executed now. Tempers flare over chronic traffic jams and long lines for gasoline.
Although the former regime was ousted in April, this has been a difficult year for most Iraqis.
Christmas should provide a respite for Iraqi Christians, but many say it is not. Many Iraqi Christians are Catholic, and an important ritual in the Catholic celebration of Christmas is midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This year, there will be no midnight Mass. Most Baghdad parishes have canceled the special service because they are worried about security and power cuts.
The priest at the Church of the Virgin Mary, Father Peter, says for Christians, this is usually a time of great joy, but this year few people truly have joy in their hearts. "We used to have a nice Christmas every year, but not this year, because this year we do not have midnight Mass. We are not happy. Nobody is preparing Christmas trees. We are not happy because [of] the situation: no security, no electricity, no happiness. Christmas is a time of happiness everywhere. In your country, where are you coming from? In America, in Europe, even here," he says. "But this year, there is no happiness, no Christmas joy."
Iraqi Christians, who make up about three percent of the population, are used to celebrating Christmas openly, with Christmas trees in the windows and festive lights strung up around town. It is a holiday that the country's Muslim majority accepts, and likes to join in celebrating through festive meals and holiday decorations.
But the lack of reliable electricity makes it hard to light up a Christmas tree. The shortage of gasoline makes it hard for people to drive to visit their relatives, as they might usually do. And most people seem to think the lack of security makes anything but the smallest celebrations just too dangerous to contemplate.
One of the church deacons, Paul Melka, says most Christians are planning much more modest Christmas celebrations than usual, in their homes instead of in public. "It is Christmas. We will celebrate it in our way this year, not in public as it was before. But because it is our most important holiday, and especially it's the birthday of our Jesus Christ. But if you ask me, are you going to celebrate it as we did before, dancing, singing, I will say no," he says.
Under Saddam's regime, Christians enjoyed relative freedom to worship generally as they pleased. Now, some members of the Christian community are nervous about how they will be treated in the new Iraq, especially if a conservative Shi'ite government comes to power next year.
Military officials and Iraqi police have said they fear the anti-coalition insurgents will use the Christmas period as an excuse to launch a new wave of attacks, targeting military and coalition targets, as well as possibly the Iraqi Christian community.
But on the surface at least, those concerns are not apparent at the Church of the Virgin Mary. Parishioners and clergy alike say they feel they have nothing to fear from their fellow Iraqis. The church deacon, Mr. Melka, insists that nobody wants to single out Christians for harm. "No, no, no, no, no. We are all Iraqis. This thought, put it aside. We never, never fear from anything, only from the security. But as a Christian, we are similar to the Muslims, any other person, all of us we are Iraqis. We are brothers," he says.
The priest, Father Peter, expresses a similar sentiment, as do several Sunday worshippers. But despite the nice words, the church is preparing for the worst.
During the Sunday service, Father Peter tells his parishioners that not only will midnight Mass be canceled this year, but when they arrive for the two scheduled Christmas Day services, there will be security guards posted outside, searching everyone on the way in. He says the extra security measures are to ensure that nobody brings anything inside to harm them.
And, like Mrs. Selman lighting her candle outside the church, he asks for patience.