Iraq's Muslims celebrate Christmas in solidarity with Christians

'This is the most joyful time of the year. We are one people,' say shoppers in Baghdad

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The Independent Online

A tall, glittering tree erected outside a shopping centre in Baghdad could be considered an incongruous display of Christmas festivity in mainly-Muslim Iraq. But the 7-metre-high tree at Sama Mall in the south east of the capital, adorned with tinsel, stars and bells, is one of a number of decorations put up by residents and business owners in solidarity with the country’s Christian minority.

Muslim businessman Yassir Saad has spent around £19,000 on a huge artificial tree to help Iraqis “forget their anguish” over the war against Isis.

The 85-foot decoration is on display in a Baghdad theme park. Visitor Saba Ismael said it “represents love and peace”. “I wish all Iraqi Christians could return to Iraq and live normal and peaceful lives,” she said.

Iraq’s small Christian community has been persistently persecuted since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

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Iraqi policemen cordon off the Virgin Mary church in the Karrada neighbourhood of the capital Baghdad and check people as they arrive to attend a Christmas mass (Getty)

Extremists marked Christian houses in Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city and an Isis stronghold since 2014 – with the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N”, for the derogatory term Nazarene, and issued threatening ultimatums to leave the city or face death or forced conversion to Islam.

Ammar Hussein, a member of staff at Sama Mall in Baghdad’s busy shopping district Karrada, which has a significant Christian minority, said that Muslims from many walks of life had been buying Christmas trees and other seasonal products.

“Muslims love to share this holiday season with their compatriots,” he said, adding that injustices towards the country’s Christians “are not caused by Muslims but by those who hate Iraq”. 

A married Muslim couple said they were buying a small Christmas tree and some gifts because they chose to celebrate Christmas “like the rest of the Islamic holidays”.

“This is the most joyful time of the year,” they said. “We do not need proof of coexistence. We are one people.”

Christians in a recently liberated town near Mosul celebrated Christmas this year for the first time since 2013. 

Hundreds of Iraqi worshippers still living in exile travelled to the main church in Bartella, an Assyrian Christian town just 13 miles east of Mosul, on Christmas Eve.

“It is a mix of sadness and happiness,” Bishop Mussa Shemani told Reuters. “We are sad to see what has been done to our holiest places by our own countrymen, but at the same time we are happy to celebrate the first Mass after two years.”

Bartella is still in a war zone, and armed guards surrounded the church. Most of the surrounding houses have been destroyed, and the worshippers arrived in a convoy of buses under heavy guard. Many more were unable to make the trip.

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The church in Bartella was defaced by Isis militants, but worshippers have been able to return (REUTERS/Ammar Awad)

Christians are not the only religious group to be persecuted by Isis. In August 2014, extremist fighters attacked the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq as part of their campaign to eradicate the Yazidi people and “purify” the region of non-Islamic influences. The group continue to suffer abominable human rights abuses, condemned by the United Nations as genocide.

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