x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Middle East Christians prepare for sombre Christmas

Some fear of attacks against their community, as in Iraq, while others keep their celebrations as discreet as possible, as in Saudi Arabia.

Christians in the Middle East prepared on Friday to celebrate Christmas, some in fear of attacks against their community, as in Iraq, and others in the most discreet way possible, as in Saudi Arabia.

For Iraq's battered Christian community, threats of attacks from Al-Qaeda and mourning for the victims of an October massacre at a Baghdad church have turned a normally festive season into one of fear and sadness.

Many mass gatherings in Iraq were cancelled on Friday, and Saturday services will be held during the morning for safety reasons.

Security measures have been stepped up after Al-Qaeda threats against Christians, with protective walls erected around some churches and the number of soldiers and police guarding churches strengthened.

On October 31, militants laid siege to Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church, leaving 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security forces personnel dead in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq.

Ten days later a string of attacks targeted the homes of Christians in Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 others.

On Friday, Chaldean Catholic archbishop Monsignor Louis Sarko said in a message from Kirkuk that Iraqi Christians must remain steadfast, despite their fears.

"Today we are living a painful experience in Iraq, which reached its peak with the massacre at Our Lady of Salvation, which touched both Christians and Muslims. But we must persevere in the face of disaster," Sarko said.

"We will not surrender to division and frustration," he said.

Father Saad Sirop Hanna, the priest of the Saint Joseph Chaldean Catholic church in central Baghdad, told his congregation at a Christmas Eve service: "Do not fear -- that is the message today."

In Saudi Arabia, Christians will be as discreet as possible in their Christmas celebrations, as the Gulf kingdom forbids the overt practice of any religion but Islam.

In the capital Riyadh, there are no signs of the Christmas season.

"We don't do much for Christmas; we have to be careful," said Raul, one of the more than one million mostly Christian Filipino migrant workers in the country, who along with two other fellow welders from Pangasinan were doing their weekly shopping at the popular Pinoy supermarket in Riyadh.

"I put up some Christmas lights in my apartment, and made a tree in the shop," said Valentin, a metal shop worker from Cavite. "You can't buy a Christmas tree in Saudi Arabia."

Religious services take place, but are exceedingly hush-hush. The state oil giant Aramco, with thousands of non-Muslim employees, has long allowed services in its tightly guarded compounds in Eastern Province.

Foreign communities also organise their own services, though most of the Christians in the country do not have access.

Although private worship in homes is protected under government orders, many Saudis including the religious police are not aware of that and so Christians are particularly cautious of attracting attention.

In other Gulf oil monarchies, major shopping centres have been particularly lively, with shoppers drawn to decorations and Christmas presents.

Various hotels in the United Arab Emirates have decorated trees, with one in Abu Dhabi housing a 13-metre-high (42 foot) version decorated with jewellery said to be worth more than 11 million dollars (8.4 million euros), making it "the most expensive Christmas tree ever."

In shopping areas of the Syrian capital Damascus, Christmas ornaments, toys, Santa Claus suits and sweets can be found.

And Christmas trees have been put up in some Syrian cities, including one in Safita near Tartus in the country's east that is 18 metres (60 feet) tall and has 3,200 lights, with a large nativity scene nearby.

Lebanon, a tiny multi-confessional Mediterranean state that is the only Arab country with a Christian head of state, is one of the few countries in the region where Christians have full religious freedom.

Christmas celebrations there transcend the multitude of religious communities, members of which formed often sectarian-based militias in Lebanon's devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

Many Muslim families have Christmas trees and decorations, and gifts and Santa Claus are social phenomena in the country which is caught up in a frenzy of buying that would match many Western states.

Mass is held in Christian communities across Lebanon, including those in religiously mixed areas.