BAGHDAD — Christmas will take place here on an altar of grief. The faces of the dead, 53 in all, stare out from photographs into the cold congregation hall, its stone floors dimpled from explosions, its ceilings still splattered with blood.
Nearly two months after a shocking assault by Islamist militants, Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church will commemorate Christmas quietly, with daytime mass and prayers for the dead, under security fit more for a prison than a house of worship. It is the same at Christian churches across Baghdad and northern Iraq, where what's left of one of the world's oldest Christian communities prepares to mark perhaps the most somber Christmas since the start of the Iraq war.
"There is sorrow in our hearts," Syrian Catholic Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of Baghdad said Friday in his office next to the church, which was guarded by concrete blast walls and a phalanx of police. "It is only natural that we show that we are mourning for the victims that we lost."
What does one tell a congregation at a time like this? Matoka had written out his Christmas sermon by hand, in neat blue Arabic script that filled one side of a page and two-thirds of another. The message, he said, was about holding fast to faith in angels.
Yet the forces besieging Iraqi Christians seem to be more powerful. In a pile of papers on Matoka's desk, along with the sermon, was a letter he and other church leaders received by e-mail last week from the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida-linked militant organization that claimed responsibility for the church attack.
"Be prepared," the letter warned, "for a long, serious war that you cannot win."
Iraqi Christians trace their history to the first century after Jesus Christ, but their numbers have more than halved since the Saddam Hussein era, when there was upwards of 1 million. The Oct. 31 assault on the church — in which five suicide bombers stormed Sunday mass, held parishioners hostage for four hours and finally detonated themselves in a gun-battle with Iraqi commandos — was the deadliest against Christians in memory, shocking a nation that had seen violence drop to its lowest levels since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Among the dead were two young priests, a 3-month-old child and a young woman who'd been married barely one month. A picture of the woman in her wedding dress, smiling, is on the altar among the photographs of the deceased. While she was at mass, church members said, her husband was at her doctor's getting test results; she died before learning that she was pregnant.
In the following weeks, Christians were targeted and killed in their homes in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, a trading hub in ancient Mesopotamia known in the Bible as Nineveh. Last week, Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government to do more to protect Christians and other religious minorities.
The attacks have led to a new exodus of Christians to neighboring Jordan, Syria and Iraq's relatively safe northern Kurdistan region. The United Nations refugee agency said that more than 1,000 Christian families have arrived in Kurdistan since November, many after receiving direct threats.
In Mosul, Athraa Salam Slewa, 45, said that her family had rented a house in Kurdistan and would be moving there soon.
"There is no one that will protect us here. Even the government couldn't protect us," she said. "My only consolation is I have good Muslim neighbors who stood beside us in these difficult circumstances."
For Christians who've remained in their homes, the sight of their heavily fortified churches provides little comfort. Maher Mikha — who lives close enough to Our Lady of Salvation church that on the night of the siege his house shook and shrapnel landed at his doorstep — said that he would attend Christmas mass with mixed emotions.
"A house of God should be an open place," said Mikha, 46, sitting with his wife and three children in a small living room under a portrait of Jesus. "But now with all these walls and the military presence, if I enter there I feel like I'm entering a prison camp."
"And anyway," his wife Hannah interjected, "even with all those walls, we have seen that when evil men want to attack anywhere, it doesn't stop them."
Yet they refuse to leave Baghdad, even after their 13-year-old son snapped a picture of one of the suicide bomber's decapitated head with his cell phone (she made him delete it), and even after Hannah's brother and his family packed up for Kurdistan last month.
"This is our country; this is our land," she said. "Our grandfather's grandfather was born here. We cannot go anywhere else."
This is what Archbishop Matoka tells his flock: that Christianity has existed in Iraq since the first generation of its existence and that leaving one's home behind isn't easy. Yet most people don't ask the church's advice these days; they come with their minds made up, their bags packed, asking only for official documents and school reports to take with them.
His message on Christmas morning will be one of hope, but it wasn't clear how much of that even he had left after one of the most difficult periods of his five decades in the church. Asked if he believed that Christians would always have a place in Iraq, he uttered that most ubiquitous phrase in Iraq, used by Muslims and Christians alike: "Inshallah," which means, "God willing."
(Special correspondent Ali Abbas contributed from Mosul, Iraq.)
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