A Christmas Tale of Two Cities
Christmas in Baghdad
For the first time, the Christians of Baghdad are celebrating Christmas without Christmas trees: tree growers from outside the city no longer dare to face the gauntlet of checkpoints set up by the militias and resellers fear becoming a target of Muslim extremists.
Muslim retailers used to wish me a Merry Christmas before selling me my choice of tree, regrets Marie Hanna, mother of two children. This year there’s neither their wishes nor a tree. Without the green of Christmas trees, Christmas isn't Christmas, especially for the kids, chimes in Ban Zaki, also a mother. What a shame, we’ll have to get along with an artificial tree, she says with disgust.
Normally, many retailers in the capital make a tidy profit during this time of year selling hundreds of Christmas trees to the Christian minority. Growers in the city’s verdant northern suburbs used to line Saadoun Street in the Karrada quarter selling these symbols of the Nativity. About a week before Christmas, they’d drive into town with trucks loaded with fir trees and stake out a location in front of the churches or in the Christian neighborhoods of Karrada and Riyadh (central and southern Baghdad). But this year there is no one selling trees with the exception of a lone farmer on the corner of Saadoun Street. They are afraid to come to town, because they risk being shot by those who don’t like to see Muslims selling Christmas Trees to Christians, deplores Sammer Yunan, a Christian. The numerous checkpoints in the neighborhoods of Baghdad set up by militias and extremists discourage tree growers from coming to town this year. Resellers are also fearful of attacks on their shops. The tradition is dying and the Christmas tree no longer has a place amid the confessional violence tearing Baghdad apart. They want to divide our society, interjects Sammir, with a disgusted look. The Christian minority of Iraq has lived in harmony with the country’s other communities and remains spared by most of the violence perpetrated by mostly Shi’a militias and Sunni insurgents. With the invasion, many Christian families have gong into exile.
The Christians of Iraq, who represent 3% of the population, are almost all members of the Chaldean Catholic Church. As everywhere in the Christian world, Christmas is a big holiday for us. But this year, it’s different; life has become difficult, laments Bassam Sami, a legal adviser to one of Iraq’s ministries. We are constantly praying for the violence to end, he explains, his eyes turned to heaven and his hands joined over this chest, asking God to “end the bloodbath”. We are afraid that something really terrible will happen this year to ruin the holiday, he adds with a murmur, as if to ward off bad luck.
In January 2006, coordinated bombings against seven Baghdad churches and the residence of the Papal Nuncio killed three and wounded 17. Because of the danger, offices are now said on Sunday afternoon, instead of at night. This year, Christmas will be bitter, says Anwar Khudhir, a retiree. How can you celebrate Christmas in this kind of atmosphere, when our neighbors and Muslim friends are in constantly in mourning? We would like to invite our Muslim friends to our table, to celebrate with us, like we used to do, he adds.
Christmas in Gaza
The Christians of Gaza this year are not interested in celebrating. The years Christmas Parade as well as Midnight Mass were canceled. The giant Christmas tree that used to dominate the main square in Gaza City is gone.
This is a joyless Christmas, says Oum Tarket, an Orthodox Christian woman. This is our first Christmas under the Islamist Hamas government, marked by an unprecedented upswing in violence between Palestinian factions and a tremendous degeneration in economic conditions. The general atmosphere in Gaza is sad. Before, Palestinian children were dying under Israeli bullets. Today they are dying from Palestinians bullets. How could we celebrate Christmas under these circumstances?, laments Manuel Mussallam, a Catholic priest. It is estimated that there are 3,000 Christians in the Gaza Strip, living side by side with 1.4 million Palestinians. But most Christmas festivities were canceled this year owing to clashes between President Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas, which controls the government.
Gaza’s annual Christmas Parade used to bring together hundreds of people, including Muslim religious dignitaries and government officials. A giant Christmas tree used to gleam with multicolored lights. Most Palestinian Christians live in Gaza City, where they own shops and go to one of two churches on Sunday. The most well known and respected physicians, lawyers, jewelers and magistrates are Christian. Most of them are orthodox Christians, but Gaza is home to 200 Catholics, including refugees from Israel who left during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.
Christians in Gaza rarely drink alcohol and observe the Muslim dress code. None are Hamas supporters but some back Fatah or Marxist organizations. But the violence of the last few months, aggravated by the call for early elections by Abbas, has resulted in the death of several schoolchildren, classmates of Oum Tarek’s children. They were slain by militants because their father was head of intelligence for Abbas. My children are still traumatized by what is happening among Palestinians. We’ve never seen this before., she says.