Fear grips Iraqi Christians as Christmas approaches

2010-12-21 09:18

Baghdad – As Christmas nears in Iraq, Christians in the country fear more attacks against their community, especially following a brutal church massacre in October which killed 63 people, many of them worshippers.

“Immediately after the attack I could not sleep for three nights,” recalls Thanaa Nasser, a survivor of the assault on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Karadah, a religiously diverse neighbourhood of Baghdad.

She suffered a back injury from broken glass which fell from the church chandeliers as explosions went off around her and members of her dwindling community perished.

Nasser, a 47-year-old medical doctor with a private practice in the Iraqi capital, survived the most terrible moments of her life by crouching near the church’s alter, waiting five hours for the assault to end.

On Sunday October 31, mass at the Assyrian-Catholic church had just ended when a gang of Islamist militants blasted their way into the building, taking hostage the 100 people inside.

The armed men shouted “Death to Christians” as they fired their rifles and detonated explosives, killing worshippers and two priests in cold blood.

The incident ended only after an Iraqi special forces team stormed the church, following a stand-off that lasted several hours.

The harsh reality that unfolded has left memories that still haunt Nasser.

“I saw how they killed Wassim Sabih, our priest, and I asked God if what I saw was real or just a nightmare,” Nasser recalls.

Militant patrols

She remembers how the militants walked back and forth, checking to see if the people they shot were indeed dead.

The doctor kept her eyes tightly closed if she heard their footsteps near, only mustering the courage to open them if the militants moved away from her hiding spot.

Nasser says she cannot yet bring herself to go back to Our Lady of Salvation Church, even though it was once a second home.
She will instead go elsewhere to pray at Christmas this year, having maintained a strong religious faith.

Her faith in humanity has also not subsided.

“I still have very good relations with my Muslim friends and neighbours.

These relationships have become even closer, because of the difficult times that we had here,” the doctor says.

Based on the sound of their accents when speaking Arabic, Nasser believes at least some of the militants, perhaps all, were not Iraqis, certainly not from her neighbourhood.

Her clinic, an ear, nose and throat surgery mostly treats Iraqi Muslim patients.

As a medic, Nasser recommends the perpetrators of terrible violence seek help.

“The terrorists, they are mentally ill, they would need to be treated by a psychiatrist.

Their traumatized victims also need the help of a doctor,” she says, adding: “This might be true also for myself.”

Diminishing community
 
She is all too aware that the Christian community in Iraq is becoming smaller and smaller as they years pass - by some estimates their numbers have been halved since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Nasser has relatives who have already moved abroad and because of the church attack more are planning to flee the country.

“I can understand the families who leave Iraq.

This is a very personal decision,” Nasser says, but insists she will stay in Baghdad.

“I am staying here because it is my country, I don’t want to be a refugee and I have my work here,” she explains.
For Christmas, she plans to travel to Amman, in neighbouring Jordan, where some of her relatives reside.

They will go to Mass together, without fear of attacks.

“Attacks on (Iraqi) Christians and their churches by armed groups have intensified in past weeks and have clearly included war crimes” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The human rights group offered little hope to Iraqis praying for a quiet holiday season, whatever their religion.

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