KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Some church leaders in Iraq have told Christians not to celebrate Christmas except with prayer after lethal attacks and continuing threats by militants against the Iraqi Christian community.
“No Santa Claus, no celebrations, no gifts this year,” Archbishop Louis Sako, chairman of the Chaldean archbishops in Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya, said on Wednesday. “We don’t have the right to jeopardize others’ lives.”
In a new threat published on an Islamist website, the local affiliate of al Qaeda threatened more attacks against Iraqi Christians.
Insurgent attacks have panicked Iraq’s minority Christian community. Thousands have fled to the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region or overseas.
In the worst attack, 52 people were killed when security forces stormed Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church in Baghdad after militants took hostages during Sunday mass on October 31. Iraqi authorities said they had arrested 12 suspected al Qaeda members in connection with the assault.
“We are still deeply wounded from what happened in Our Lady of Salvation church,” Sako said. “We saw innocent people brutally killed while praying to God, so how can we celebrate?”
“We will not celebrate this year. We will only pray to God asking for peace to prevail in our country.”
The church attack renewed fears that Sunni Islamist militants were trying to drive Christians out of their homeland.
The U.N. refugee agency said last week that some 1,000 Christian families, roughly 6,000 people, had fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas.
A U.N. official said Christians in the Iraqi capital and in Mosul, which is considered al Qaeda’s last urban stronghold, have started a slow but steady exodus.
In its latest threat, the Islamic State of Iraq, the local affiliate of al Qaeda, said Iraqi Christians risked further attacks unless they pressured the Christian church in Egypt to release a group of people it said the church was holding after they had converted to Islam.
The al Qaeda wing also warned Iraqi Christians against proselytizing and fraternizing with occupation forces.
Mukhlis Kyriakos, a priest at Our Lady of Salvation, said the decision to limit festivities was made in part because of ongoing threats from militants, who had warned parishioners not to use traditional methods to honor those killed.
“The Archbishop Council of Iraq decided that celebrations are to be limited to prayers at churches only. No celebrations, no parties,” he said.
“We are still receiving threats from terrorists. Even families of those killed inside the church were threatened that if they hang a banner marking their lost relatives, their houses will be blown up.”
Iraq’s Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now believed to be about 850,000 out of a population estimated at 30 million.
“What is happening to us these days is similar to what happened to Jews in Iraq before,” Kyriakos said. “Christians are being displaced from their country.”
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Aseel Kami and Saif Tawfiq; Editing by Caroline Drees and Elizabeth Fullerton