It was already late on Christmas Day, 2005, in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, when my friend Luqman Khadir, an ethnic Kurd and non-practicing Muslim, passed along a surprising invitation. A fellow Kurd, one of Iraq's increasingly rare Christians, had asked Luqman whether I'd like to spend a few hours celebrating the holidays with him and his family.
It was a surprising invitation because that year, Iraqi Christians had been targeted in several high-profile attacks, including a bombing in Erbil, usually one of the safest cities in all of Iraq. Increasing ethnic and religious violence had driven Iraqi Christians into walled, heavily guarded compounds. Visitors, even Western reporters, were not welcome.
So I jumped at the chance to see a Christmas celebration firsthand. And I immediately agreed when Luqman laid out the ground rules for my visit: The Christian man and his sons would receive me, but his wife and daughters would not be present; I was welcome to spend a few hours with my host in his home, but I would not be allowed to visit any holiday church services; and we could talk in general terms about Christmas and Christianity in Iraq, but I was not to identify my source.
There were strings of white Christmas lights on the walls of the Christians' compound, and green wreaths on some doors. The decorations were surprisingly subdued considering what I had seen elsewhere in Erbil. In a public square outside my downtown hotel, some enthusiastic Kurds had propped up a garish, nearly life-size plastic Santa. Young Kurds draped their arms over Santa's shoulders and grinned for photos. Light-hearted Christmas décor in a public setting was one thing; boldly marking your home with evidence of your faith was clearly another. ...