Christmas under siege: Baghdad tree tradition dies
by Sabah JergesSat Dec 23, 4:53 AM ET
Baghdad's vicious sectarian war has claimed another victim; a Christmas tradition that used to bond the city's Christian community closer to their Muslim neighbours is dying.
Until this year, Muslim farmers from Baghdad's outskirts would descend on Sadun Street in downtown Karrada to sell Christmas trees to the area's large Christian community and exchange season's greetings.
Prices were low and, for the remaining Christians in an increasingly dangerous district, it was as much an inter-religious social event as a market.
"They used to wish me Merry Christmas before selling me the tree I chose," said mother-of-two Mary Hanna. "I miss them and their trees this year."
Reporters who visited Karrada in the build-up to Christmas found very few tree stalls, where once Sadun street would have been decked with green boughs.
Shops were still stocking a colourful array of artificial trees, baubles and party decorations, but the pre-Christmas street market ambiance was lost.
Baghdad's large but dwindling Christian community has thus far not been a target for the rival Sunni and Shiite death squads whose attacks have pushed Iraq to the brink of all-out sectarian war.
But the blockade on Christmas trees is a worrying sign in what was once one of the Middle East's most cosmopolitan cities; a mix of ethnic Arabs and Kurds, of religious Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Jews.
To bring the Christmas trees to Karrada, the farmers would have to carry them through the backroads of Baghdad's suburbs and brave a gauntlet of car bombs and illegal checkpoints manned by sectarian assassins.
"They are afraid to come as they would certainly be targeted by gunmen, who hate to see those offering trees to Christians," said Sameer Yunan, a Christian. "They want division in our society."
Mother-of-three Ban Zaki said she would buy an artificial tree to celebrate Christmas, but regreted the passing of a tradition that would have seen her and her kids picking the best fir from the friendly tradesmen.
"We look forward to Christmas. When we bring the tree home, our kids know that Santa Claus is coming with presents. It won't be so much fun this year," she sighed.
Christians have lived side-by-side with Muslims and other religious groups in Iraq for centuries as a respected part of society, sometimes achieving high office in government.
Areas like Karrada were once among the wealthiest in the city, fuelling a widespread belief that Christians are rich, which has in turn made them a prime target for the kidnap gangs that also target Muslims.
Census figures from before the first Gulf War in 1991 put Christian Iraqis at more than one million, but the number has been falling ever since, with refugee flows accelerating since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In the wake of the US invasion, Muslim Iraqis turned to political movements organised on sectarian lines, effectively excluding Christians from influence. Many have fled the violence tearing the country apart.
There have been attacks and kidnappings targeting churches and priests, but not many. More than anything there is a sense that they are not welcome any more in a country intent on organising itself on Islamist lines.
"Christmas is a big occasion for us," said Bassam Sami, a legal adviser at the education ministry. "The occasion however is completely different this year. Life has become so difficult for all Iraqis, including Christians.
"We are afraid that something will happen that spoils this merry occasion," he added. "We always pray that this scene of daily killing may stop for good. I pray to God to stop the bloodshed."
Pensioner Anwar Khudhir, admitted that as a Christian he had not been directly threatened by the war dividing his Sunni and Shiite neighbours, but said no-one in his community felt like holding parties amid the bloodshed.
"This violence is haunting all Iraq. We can't celebrate surrounded by wakes and distressed neighbouring families. We want to celebrate while our Muslim brethren are happy too," he said.