Iraq Christians mark Christmas under threat

Security measures have failed to prevent violence


Iraq's dwindling Christian population has little to celebrate this Christmas after a spate of attacks against their community including on Thursday killed several and put the army on alert.

In the main northern city of Mosul, where the Christian minority has long been concentrated, churches have been bombed, Christians gunned down and the community is fearful.

The latest victim was a Christian minibus driver who was killed Thursday in east Mosul by unknown gunmen, police said. It was the seventh attack targeting Christians in the city in the past month.

"This was all a dream we used to live in for many years, and then the nightmare came back and a black cloud came over us," said Jamil Butrus, a 59-year-old Christian lawyer.

"Our joy and parties turned to hell, killing, threats and explosions. You do not know what the aim of it is or who is doing it."

The Iraqi army has been put on alert in areas with large Christian populations such as Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh, the ethnically mixed province of Kirkuk, and in Baghdad.

Troops have been out in force in Mosul since celebrations marking the Islamic new year last week, and roads leading to churches have been closed off.

All of the city's churches are now guarded by checkpoints and military patrols.

"Today, the streets that lead to churches look like a military base, they are blocked by barbed wire and concrete barriers with policemen all around," said 56-year-old engineer Younis Mekha, a Christian.

"You have to park your car far away and then walk. Policemen or soldiers will give you a scary look and ask you where you are going, tell you to go back, that you are not allowed to go in.

"You tell him: 'Yes, I know, but I am a Christian and I have come to pray.' Then you give him your ID papers and after checking them, he lets you in."

Our joy and parties turned to hell, killing, threats and explosions. You do not know what the aim of it is or who is doing it

Jamil Butrus, a 59-year-old Christian lawyer

Violence prevails

However the tight security measures have failed to prevent violence.

A bomb attack against a historic church in Mosul on Wednesday killed two people, both of them Muslims, and wounded five.

A handcart was left across the street from the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Thomas where it exploded.

"This church was visited by Muslims as well as Christians, to see the statues, the decorations, the inscriptions on its walls, and to know its history," said 39-year-old Rafa Abdul Noor, a deacon at the church which was founded in 770 AD and partially restored in 1744.

"Now it is being targeted by cowards. Their aim is to stop the celebration of Christmas, to stop prayers to stop the mention of God's name in his houses, and to push sectarianism among the people of the country."

Last year, thousands of Christians fled Mosul in the face of violence that killed 40 members of the community.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, hundreds of Iraqi Christians have been killed and several churches attacked.

Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but their number has since shrunk by a third or more as members of the community have fled abroad, according to Christian leaders.

"Before 2003, Christians used to live a happy and secure life, I can't remember a Christian being killed, threatened or displaced," said 62-year-old

Zakariyah Yahya Abi Salman, a retired teacher.

"Only God knows what happened to this city."

Only God knows what happened to this city

Zakariyah Yahya Abi Salman, a retired teacher