BAGHDAD // Fear of violence and religious persecution has become the new Christmas tradition for Iraqi Christians and, following a series of recent sectarian attacks, this year was no different. Rather than openly enjoy their own celebrations, Christians from Mosul in the north to Basra in southern Iraq have been keeping a low profile. The situation in Basra is so tense that a leading member of the Christian community said Christmas celebrations would be subdued this year out of respect for the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura, due to begin today.
"Most Christians who are still here will not be going to church this year and no one is receiving guests or going out to visit their friends," explained Sa'ad Mati Butrs, head of the committee for religious minorities in Basra province. "We want to live in peace with our Muslim neighbours and with the Shia celebrating Ashura. We want to make it clear we are on their side. "After much discussion in the committee, we decided that we should stay quiet so as not to invite terrorist attacks against us [the Christians], and in fact, we will be sending delegations to visit the Shia mosques across the south to show them our respects on Ashura."
There have been continued reports from southern Iraq, which has long had a small yet significant Christian community, of increased levels of intolerance. Hardline Shiite groups grew in strength in Basra, once renowned as a cosmopolitan and liberal part of the country, after the US-led invasion of 2003. Although the militias that roamed the city streets have been heavily weakened, Christians in the city say it remains a bastion of Islamic conservatism.
In the Iraqi capital conditions were similar. A handful of elderly people turned up for the once customary Christmas day services at Matroma Church, in the Nariyah neighbourhood, just as Bishop Mutran Sako had anticipated. "Our church has just become a building that a few religious officials use these days, not many ordinary people," he said. "Since 2003 we haven't been performing the liturgy [public worship] here. The militia groups used to openly dominate the area and even though security has improved there are still extremists here and we feel we cannot risk religious celebrations."
Mosul also had a large Christian community, before many fled to safer neighbouring Kurdish provinces or moved to Syria. In the fortnight leading up to Christmas, there have been at least three car bombings targeting Christians and at least one reported assassination in the city. On Friday, a handful of Christians and Shiites got into a dispute over decorations in a northern Iraqi town during their coinciding religious observances, officials said. Iraqi troops were deployed to Bartela, 390 kilometres north-west of Baghdad and a curfew was imposed in the town after three guards at a Christian church were injured during the scuffle.
The violence and fear have not been confined to Iraqi Christians. Shiites have been hit in larger mass casualty attacks, with a series of bombings this week killing dozens of worshippers commemorating Ashura, despite increased security. Ashura in Iraq, suppressed by Saddam Hussein, has, even more than Christmas, become a time of sectarian violence with al Qa'eda style Sunni extremists doing their best to murder as many Shiites as they can.
In eastern Baghdad, Bishop Sako said the Christian community's own request for more security there on a long-term basis had not been met. "We asked the government for more protection but they have their hands full I suppose," he said. "Two months ago a pair of Christians from our neighbourhood went missing and we've not seen or heard from them since." Most of his old congregation had left the area. "We used to have 1,000 Christian families here, now there are 200," he explained. "Our freedom was taken away by the militias and it hasn't come back. Christian girls here still wear hijabs when they go out, to avoid attracting unwanted attention or problems."
In Karada, another district in the Iraqi capital city, the situation had marginally improved over previous years, said Maryia Ammar, a 23-year-old Chaldean Christian student at Baghdad university. Unlike in previous years she no longer felt compelled to wear a hijab when going outside, she said. But there would still be a restricted Christmas. "There is no real celebration this year," she said. "I'm sad that we can't celebrate in public and drink red wine like we used to before the war [in 2003].
"Christmas used to be something that would be shared with Muslims, but that doesn't happen now." With Ashura coinciding with the Christmas period this year, Baghdad's Christians had, as in Basra, decided on a distinctly low-profile approach to their own festivities, Ms Ammar said. "We wanted to make sure we showed respect to Ashura, we don't want to be hunted by bombs so we are not going to church, we will just stay at home."
In Maysan, 365km south-east of Baghdad, 27-year-old Noor Yusif said he hoped the time was coming when Christians would again be treated as an integral part of Iraqi society, and allowed to practice their own cultural and religious traditions. "It's right that we should respect the feelings of the Shia Muslims in Ashura," he said. "But I think that respect has to work in both directions, I would hope they understand our feelings as well. We need to look at one another's traditions with respect otherwise a poison enters the whole society."
Despite general progress on security and in Iraq's political arena - albeit imperfect and faltering - Mr Yusif, said this year was the worst Christmas he had experienced. "It's actually the first time we've done nothing in public and have hidden like criminals," he said. "If we want wine to drink, we have to have it smuggled in, Christian women have to wear hijab." Under such conditions, there was little sense of festivity. "It's all still feels pretty awful here," he said.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by the Associated Press