Iraqi soldiers guard a church in Basra, in southern Iraq. In Baghdad, many… (Nabil al-Jurani / Associated…)
Reporting from Baghdad and Mosul — The Judo family stayed away from Christmas Eve Mass in Baghdad. Because of recent sectarian violence in the capital and other areas of the country, they were worried that churches might be targeted by armed groups.
By nightfall, their worst fears had been realized. Not only had a Christian been killed in the northern city of Mosul, but the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura, which this year begins one day after Christmas, had made the situation even more volatile: 27 people killed in attacks on Shiite neighborhoods.
Two bombs rocked the capital, killing 14 people, and 13 died in a double explosion in the southern city of Hillah, some of them devout Shiites on their way to Karbala for Ashura ceremonies, which will be held Sunday.
The attacks stirred memories of the country's darkest days when Sunni Muslim militants regularly attacked Shiite pilgrims during holidays such as Ashura, which marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in 680. The government has boosted security for Sunday in a bid to prevent a massacre comparable to the series of massive bombings in Baghdad since August.
Only months ago, there was optimism that Iraq might be on the verge of stability, but after weeks of rising bloodshed, many churches closed their doors Thursday evening or hosted few guests for a late-afternoon Christmas Eve Mass.
Most Christians fled Baghdad in 2006 and '07 at the height of the sectarian violence when Islamic militants branded them U.S. collaborators, attacked their churches and gave them an ultimatum to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax. A year ago, some returned triumphantly to their neighborhoods.
But now they again are alarmed by the security situation in the city and nervous about drawing attention to themselves.
"We don't have the Christmas spirit like we did before," George Judo said of his family's holiday dinner. "We hoped to do more than this but the explosions, assassinations and bad security prevent us from having a normal everyday life and celebrating Christmas in a normal way."
Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Judo said, his wife and children would attend Midnight Mass and then return for dinner. Now, Judo says, he doesn't feel that it is safe to go to Mass even in the late afternoon.
Nevertheless, he said, he still planned to attend Christmas morning services today.
"Maybe if things were normal I could take my family to a park and then to a restaurant. Unfortunately, I am too worried to do these things," Judo said.
Though some worried about offending Shiite Muslim's sensibilities so near Sunday's Ashura commemorations, Judo said he felt that the two religions respected each other.
His family had decorated their house with a plastic Christmas tree, though Judo was nostalgic about the days when pine trees were readily available.
"The Christian community shrank so much, it's impossible to bring real trees anymore," he said.
Father Boutros Haddad, the priest at Baghdad's Church of the Virgin Mary, also had a bleak view of the holiday.
"Baghdad was always safe for us, but unfortunately times have changed," he said. "We wonder when we can live like normal people and joy can return to our hearts."
In Mosul, churches opened for Mass but most Christians traveled to nearby Qaraqosh. The biggest attacks against Christians have come in Mosul, including three car bombings in the last two weeks. In late 2008, hundreds of Christians fled the city after attacks; the city's archbishop was slain earlier that year.
In one Mosul neighborhood, Abu Isho, 51, and his family sat in their living room, decorated with a tree, lights and gifts for Christmas morning. He wondered whether this would be his last Christmas in Iraq. If things keep deteriorating, he said, they will leave.
His wife, Umm Isho, said she no longer wanted people to know her religion.
"As a Christian, I don't feel safe," she said. "I put the scarf on my head when I go to work, so no one will know that I am Christian."
Ahmed is a Times staff writer. Hayali is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Ned Parker and Usama Redha contributed to this report.