Sins and Sorrows Grow in Mosul
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. For Erbil's Christians, it was best to keep Christmas a quiet, private affair, lest loud celebration draw another attack.
In the three years since my Christmas visit in Erbil, security in that northern city has improved considerably. "Totally safe" is how Joost Hiltermann, a security analyst with the New York-based International Crisis Group, describes Erbil. But in other parts of Iraq, Christians are being targeted by Arab Muslim extremists. Around a dozen Christians were reportedly killed in late September and early October alone, bringing to around 200 the number of Iraqi Christians apparently killed for their faith since 2003. Many more have fled their homes amid growing security fears. For these survivors, this Christmas will be a somber one.
Christians have called Iraq home for more than 1,500 years. Today, the country's Christian population, probably numbering a little over one million, is divided between Chaldeans (who are formally associated with the Roman Catholic Church) and Assyrians (who adhere to similar doctrine but have no formal ties to Rome). Assyrians claim to have one of the highest martyrdom rates of any Christian sect: some two million have reportedly died for their faith over the centuries. The martyrs continue today.
In early October, news and rumors spread like wildfire through the city of Mosul and neighboring towns. After a period of relative peace, word was that insurgents were deliberately targeting the area's small Christian population. The attacks were apparently aimed at driving the Christians out of town — thus "religiously cleansing" what was once one of the most diverse regions of Iraq. This just weeks before Christmas.
It was hard to tell fact from exaggeration and misinformation. Several car bombs exploded in or near Christian neighborhoods around Mosul, but it wasn't clear if the bombs actually targeted Christians or were, in fact, aimed at nearby soldiers. Some observers insinuated that attacks were timed to keep Christians from voting as a bloc in upcoming elections. One Christian woman told a reporter that the attackers wore the blue uniforms of Iraqi police. Amid rising hysteria, an Iraqi general warned against "media exaggeration that gave rise to fear and horror among these families." Even foreign-based security analysts struggled to separate the truth from the rumors. Hiltermann said his sources in Iraq could not get close enough to Mosul to verify alarming reports.