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For some Iraqi Christians, this may be last Christmas in Baghdad

Repeated attacks and new threats against the minority group lead churches to skip decorations and evening services and families to consider leaving Iraq altogether.

December 25, 2010|By Raheem Salman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad — Rimon Metti's family will go to Christian services on Christmas Day, but his relatives will be praying for their own survival and wondering whether this is their last holiday season in Baghdad. If they had any grounds for optimism about the future of their faith in Iraq, it vanished this year amid repeated attacks on fellow believers.

Metti's tree stands in the corner of his home, decorated with ornaments and tinsel. Pennants of a smiling Santa hang from a beam. But the decorations bring little Christmas cheer.

His world changed Oct. 31, when Islamic militants took parishioners hostage at a Baghdad church. At least 58 people were killed in the siege. A week later, bombs went off in Christian neighborhoods in the capital.

A group linked to Al Qaeda took responsibility for those attacks and threatened more violence against Christians. It repeated those threats Tuesday. The next day, a council representing the country's Christian denominations advised followers to call off Christmas festivities, and many church leaders in major cities said they would not put out decorations or hold evening services.

Metti said Friday that he would attend only the service on Christmas morning and avoid the Christmas Eve Mass. His goal is simple: survival. Priests and Christian politicians are calling for this Christmas to be one of mourning for the faithful killed in October.

Metti no longer recognizes his Iraq. Once the Christian community had more than 1 million adherents, but Metti has watched its numbers shrink over his 26 years.

There have been bad times since 2003 when the Americans arrived: church bombings and the chaos of 2007, when Al Qaeda in Iraq members tried to force conversions on Christians in Baghdad; panicked exoduses from Mosul to Kurdish-protected areas after a rash of killings. But somehow Metti thought life had improved in Baghdad, and recently there was a veneer of normality. The October siege did away with that illusion.

Since then, according to the United Nations, about 1,000 Christian families have left Baghdad and Mosul for the relative safety of the Kurdish northeast. On Tuesday, the state-sponsored Christian Endowment Fund called for the creation of a secure region in Iraq where Christians could live.

Metti ran through a list of everything that is gone from his holiday. "Before, we were able to travel anywhere you wanted inside Iraq: to the north, from my neighborhood to another, to Zawra Park, or the amusement park on the canal highway. Now it is not possible."

After Christmas Day services, he will go to his aunt's home, as he does frequently on Sundays after church. But he sees little to celebrate.

"Even the government can't protect us," Metti said. "They can't protect themselves, how can they protect us!"

Baghdad has become hostile to him, he said, contending that Islamic fundamentalists are taking over Iraqi society.

"They have closed even the social clubs and bars.… The licenses are only given to either Christians or Yazidis. By closing these shops, it means they are telling us indirectly to leave!"

He used to love to go to church to see his family and friends. "Yes, the celebrations on this occasion became part of our traditions and our life," he said, "but we had to leave it behind reluctantly."

He wants to leave Iraq now, though his father rejects the idea.

"Our livelihoods are also in danger, how we can live?" Metti said. "So we should find another place to live."

Salman is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Ned Parker contributed to this report.

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