Iraq's Christians Celebrate Uneasily

Dec 26, 2002 10:05 AM EST

MOSUL, Iraq -- A nun was on her knees at the altar, not praying but scrubbing, getting everything ready. A man trained a spotlight toward the ceiling to test it. In the back of the church, a creche had been set up, the empty crib waiting for the Baby Jesus.

Christmas has arrived in Iraq, the moment when its relatively small Christian community takes center stage in a predominantly Muslim society. At the Clock and Latin Church here in Mosul, hundreds of Dominican Catholics gather annually amid the marble columns and stained-glass windows for Mass on Christmas Eve.

Peace is at the top of the list in their prayers this year, all the more so because of the threat of another war with the United States. But the Christians who live in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq say they have an additional reason to pray this Christmas: Beyond the death and destruction delivered by war generally, another conflict could generate disorder and perhaps anger directed against Iraq's Christian population.

"Some people are afraid if there's something serious, what will happen in the city with the people -- Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite. It's very difficult," said Brother Rame Simon, 35, who is studying philosophy and theology in preparation for the Dominican order. "We are afraid that they use this time when the government cannot control all the country. Most people have very good relations. But in this situation it only takes one fool, one crazy person who can make a lot of trouble."

Christians used to make up almost 1 million of the 23 million Iraqis, although the number has dwindled to below 800,000 in recent years as many left for Europe and the United States. Dominant among those remaining are Assyrian Catholics, who are called Chaldeans here. In addition to Arabic, many of them speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Christians have risen to the top ranks in Iraq under President Saddam Hussein, with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz prominent among them, and anti-Christian violence has been largely suppressed by Hussein's Baath government. But religious conflict has been a fact of life through the centuries in the Middle East.

Mosul has as much cause for concern about what might happen if war breaks out as anywhere. Located about 250 miles north of Baghdad, near a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave protected by U.S. and British air patrols, Mosul hosts perhaps the most vibrant Christian community in Iraq, estimated to number as many as 50,000 in the greater region. It also plays home to Muslim Kurds, Turkomen and Arab Muslims from both the Sunni and Shiite branches of the religion. What seems a harmonious diversity in peacetime could turn volatile if Iraq begins to collapse.

"If there is a war, it will be a complicated situation," said Philippe Khoshaba, 35, a Dominican priest at Clock and Latin Church. "We're afraid the Kurds will be here and the Muslims will be here. We don't know what the situation will be." Khoshaba added, "We're not afraid of our neighbors here, but we fear Iran or other groups that will provoke troubles here to profit from the situation."

Straddling the Tigris River, Mosul traces its history back to ancient times long before the prophet Muhammad and the advent of Islam. A major Mesopotamian trading stop on the route from India and Iran to the Mediterranean, it was known as Nineveh in the Bible, the third capital of Assyria and the cultural center of the Sumerian and Babylonian empires.

Devastated by the Mongols in the 13th century, Mosul was rebuilt and became one of three provinces under the Ottomans that would later be combined to create Iraq under British rule in 1920. After the departure of the British, Iraqi Muslims set upon the Christians in 1933 in retaliation for their collaboration with the colonial power. In 1959, political unrest also led to clashes in Mosul pitting Muslims against Christians.

Today, it is Iraq's third-largest city, a center of the oil industry but also still famous for its cotton and marble. The Serai bazaar teems with people at midday shopping for food or clothes. Tourists, when there are some, can visit a leaning minaret built in 640 or the Mosque of Nebi Yunus, believed to be the burial place of Jonah. Also noted for its churches and Christian antiquities, Mosul has begun storing away its most precious artifacts to protect them against any U.S. bombing.

Among its most distinctive churches is the Clock and Latin, built by French Dominicans in 1872 and known for its clock tower. A renovation completed last year has restored the limestone and marble house of worship to its once grand state.

Suhar Alyas, 32, a housekeeper, dressed up in her finest clothes and came to church today with her 9-year-old daughter, Milad Behnan, who carried three candles to light at the Virgin Mary statue in the church courtyard. Milad wants new shoes for Christmas; her 11-year-old brother, who has leukemia, wants a pair of birds. Their mother wants no more war.

"What do they get in benefit just to kill kids?" she asked. "We are praying to God to protect us and our children."

Around town, other Christians made final preparations for the holiday. It will not be a white Christmas, but it has grown chillier here in the north. Customers wore their coats to shop for last-minute gifts at Allah Faraj's shop. His is one of two in town that sell Christmas items, and he was too busy to think about geopolitics. "We're not worried about war," he said.

Ziad Tariq, an 18-year-old finishing his last year of secondary school, picked up some musical Christmas tree lights as well as small handmade ceramic creche figures. "For my gift, I just want that there won't be war," he said. Tariq wants to be a doctor. If there is war, though, he will be a soldier. At school, he received two months of training in how to use a gun.

Ban Wadi Said, 35, was looking for ornaments. Afterward she planned to go home and bake a traditional cake with dates for her three daughters, then cook a large meal and put music in the cassette player. While war looms, she said, she remains optimistic that it will not result in divisions with her Muslim neighbors.

"Thank God, we live in a country that respects us, and we respect them," she said.

Most Christians interviewed in the presence of a government translator said the different religious groups in Mosul live in harmony. Just as Christians congratulate their neighbors every Ramadan, they said, Muslims congratulate them at Christmas.

The man who sells many of the Christmas trees in town happens to be a Muslim. Mohammed Ali Hussein, 56, has been selling about 15 per day, and by this afternoon was left with just a half-dozen short, withered baby trees that could not support a string of lights.

Hussein said he has nothing but love for his Christian neighbors. "Our blood is about the same," he said. In the old days walking down the street he could tell who was Christian and who was not. "Now," he said, "we can't. The Muslims are without veils, the Christians are without veils. Everything has changed. Now sometimes even Christians are putting on veils as fashion, so you can't tell the difference."

By Peter Baker