Iraqi Christians have cancelled Christmas festivities across the country as al Qaida insurgents threaten more attacks on their beleaguered community.
A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public celebrations out of concern over new terror attacks and as a show of mourning for the victims of the church siege that killed 68 people two months ago.
Church officials in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, the southern city of Basra and in the capital Baghdad confirmed they will not put up decorations or hold evening Mass and have urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus was called off.
“Nobody can ignore the threats of al Qaida against Iraqi Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. “We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak.”
Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since the Baghdad church attack in October. Days later, insurgents targeted Christian homes and neighbourhoods across the capital with a series of bombs.
An al Qaida front group that claimed responsibility for the church siege vowed at the time to carry out a reign of terror against Christians.
The Islamic State of Iraq renewed its threats in a message posted on Tuesday on a website frequented by Islamic extremists. The group said it wants the release of two women it claims are being held captive by Egypt’s Coptic Church.
Sunni Muslim extremists that make up groups like al Qaida believe Christians to be non-believers aligned with Western countries such as the US
Few reliable statistics exist on the number of Christians in this nation of 29 million. A recent report says Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 remain, down from a pre-war level as high as 1.4 million by some estimates.
Since the deadly church siege, the UN estimates some 1,000 Christian families have fled to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq which is generally much safer.