12.25.10

Iraqi Christians Celebrate in Exile

After a string of terror attacks and threats—including October’s devastating al Qaeda rampage in Baghdad—Christians in Iraq have fled to the north, or nearby countries. Christmas morning, Nathan Deuel talked to refugees cautiously observing the holy day.

ERBIL, Iraq – It's Christmas morning in northern Iraq, and the parishioners of St. Joseph's Church are emerging from their homes into the bright desert sunlight. With two Iraqi friends, I drive along narrow avenues decorated with twinkling lights and the occasional inflatable Santa. We pass a clutch of men wearing bright sweaters, pressed slacks, and loafers. A trio of women breaks into tight smiles; one is wearing a red skirt with a band of white snowflakes.

We round the corner, and we’re surprised to see that a shimmering tanker truck is blocking the road to the church. Frowning men in uniform wave their arms. As one of the largest Christian centers of worship in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq, the church is a potential target. We’re urged to park down the block. But high security is better than nothing at all. Throughout Iraq, celebrations of Christmas have been muted or gone underground. Following a round of text messages, purportedly from Al Qaeda, ordering priests to cancel Christmas or else, outward festivities were called off in Kirkuk and Basra.

All this comes in the wake of what Iraqis are calling "the tragedy." On October 31, eight armed men who later claimed to be affiliated with the local branch of al Qaeda stormed a church Baghdad. It was a Sunday, and the pews of Our Lady of Salvation were thronged with parishioners. Militants openly shot some worshippers and threw grenades at others. When Iraqi security forces arrived, a tense gun battle broke out. Surviving militants detonated suicide vests inside the church. In the end, more than 50 people were killed.

Two days later, a spate of coordinated bombings targeted Christian homes in the capitol, killing a handful more. In the following days and weeks, priests and their congregants began receiving threatening text messages. Some were delivered envelopes containing bullets.

"I'm full of grief," says Muna, a 43-year-old mother of three children. "I'm forcing myself to talk to you. What we've seen is terrible, blood-curdling."

It was the worst violence against Iraq's Christians in recent memory, and it inspired what the United Nations is now calling an exodus of Christians to northern Iraq, and beyond. Refugee organizations say that since the war with the United States in March 2003 began, only 500,000 of the country's more than one million Christians remain. The disappearance is so stark that one former Baghdad resident now living in Erbil told a New York Times reporter that the same thing is happening to Iraq's Christians as did to Iraq's Jews, back in 1948. "They want us all to go," he said.

Of those who have not yet escaped to neighboring Syria or Jordan—or Europe or the United States—many of Iraq's Christians have sought refuge in the historically Christian neighborhood of Ankawa, in Erbil.

Christmas morning, we take seats in the sumptuously appointed living room of a top Ankawa official, the silver-haired Femi Mattih. He says that Erbil has long kept its doors open for Christians. "The Iraq government has been unable to protect its people," he says. "There are families leaving Baghdad daily."

Above a couch, the last supper is rendered in marble and mounted to the wall in a gilt frame. Against this backdrop, Mattih says that in coordination with NGOs—including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees—refugees in Erbil have been given access to food and clothes, but little more.

According to the most recent figures available—and more refugees are arriving every day—about 1,500 Christian families have migrated north since the tragedy. I make note of the figures and see, above Mattih's left shoulder, an oil painting of a weeping woman, holding in one hand a lamb and in the other a child. I ask him where I can find one of the families who's left the capital city recently. Mattih sighs and sinks deeper into his plush chair. "These people are fed up," he says. "Today is a day to celebrate." He shows us out the door as his phone buzzes with another call.

At a rotisserie chicken shop, we ask after refugees from Baghdad. Squinting in the sun and wiping sweat from his eyes, a young man tending the spinning birds pauses to consider, then dashes off to retrieve a bashful, great-bellied Iraqi Christian named Maher Lattif Hanna. After all the violence against Christians, he fled with his family and now stays in a rented house. "The situation is very bad," he says. I ask after his work. He says he is thirty years old. He looks at his wet and dirty hands and tells me he's a cleaner.

"I miss Baghdad," he says. "I cry for Baghdad."

Down the block, an old man tells us of a neighborhood on the edge of Ankawa—known as 108—where we might find some of the newest exiles. We encounter a sprawling grid of new-construction duplexes. In house after house are the same new windows with peeling manufacturing stickers, the same tiled courtyard, the same raw stucco. Then I begin to see tinsel, and Christmas lights, and stars, and trees dripping with colored balls.

At a house bedecked in Christmas decorations, we meet Aiser Al-Mardinly, 26, who fled Mosul with his extended family a year ago. (Christians in Mosul also faced waves of targeted violence in recent years.) As we chat about his situation, the rest of the family begins to emerge—first an older man through a side door, then a few children out an upper-story window, then two women from a door on the upper patio. Soon there are a dozen—all exiles—observing our conversation. A jolly man with a dark moustache and crooked sunglasses, the patriarch of the family, invites us for tea. "There are so many of us here."

At the next house, the family says they abandoned Baghdad years ago. Again, a gaggle of people emerge in waves to stare. The patriarch wears a brown blazer and sweeps his hand proudly over his garden. "Celery, cucumber, radish," he says, showing how well he's made this new place his home. In the distance, the desert stretches on and on.

We stop at dozens of houses, where families packed sometimes three-to-a-unit are quick to file out and make somber witness. Then we meet the Fadhil family, fresh from Baghdad. They prefer not to talk, at first, telling us they're too shy. We sit in the car and I write questions on a piece of paper. We're getting ready to leave, to let this family enjoy the holiday in peace, but then Muna walks over.

We stand in the street, eye to eye. She's wearing a red tracksuit, and her honey-colored hair is pulled back tightly. She says she was the cook at Our Lady of Salvation Church—the one that was attacked on October 31. That day, she says, so many of her friends died. But it was her day off, and she was home. Now on this holiday, spared that awful day, a survivor, she is no longer home. "I couldn't live without them any more," she says. "One week after the attack, we all left."

Explaining why her family chose Erbil, Muna, a 43-year-old mother of three children, says she had distant relatives here who could help her family get settled. There were also the food rations from Mr. Mattih and help from NGOs.

I ask her if she attends church in Erbil. She eyes me sadly and says she's very tired, she's very depressed. "I'm full of grief," she says. "I'm forcing myself to talk to you. What we've seen is terrible, blood-curdling."

I feel bad for my questions. But Muna touches her heart, smiles, and at noon in Iraq on December 25th, it's time to get back to what's left of Christmas.

Nathan Deuel is a writer based in Istanbul. He is at work on a book about walking from New York to New Orleans. His writing has also been published by Slate, True/Slant, The Village Voice, and TheAtlantic.com.