Celebrating Christmas Behind Walls in Iraq Concrete walls up to 10 feet high are being erected around churches in Baghdad and Mosul to protect Christmas worshippers from being targeted by extremists.
With access points for Mass-goers controlled by police with scanning equipment, the barriers are the Iraqi government’s response to reports of increased threats to churches and other Christian communities in the run-up to Christmas.
The walls, some of which are already in place, are the strongest signal yet of the Iraqi government’s determination to avoid a repeat of the October 31st massacre at Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where 58 people were killed and more than 70 others were injured.
It comes amid reports of Christmas activities in both cities being scaled back to
reduce the security threat.
Normally Christmas celebrations would involve parties in church halls and parks but this year Church leaders have instructed the faithful to restrict their festivities to the absolute minimum to reduce the security risk.
Speaking from northern Iraq in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said, “The sadness of the people is everywhere. Uncertainty is everywhere. The question on everyone’s lips is ‘What’s next?’”
“There is a kind of desperation. But whatever happens, the people are determined to celebrate the Christmas liturgy by any means possible.”
Describing the concrete barriers and associated security measures as “making you feel you are entering a military camp,” Archbishop Warda nonetheless praised the government for taking steps to improve security.
The archbishop explained that government officials had contacted parish priests asking if they wanted the security walls around their churches.
Many clergy have given their approval to the plans while others said they felt the measures would simply intimidate an already fearful Christian community.
The archbishop was speaking after reports that at least 2,000 Christians from Mosul and Baghdad had fled since the upsurge of violence climaxing with the October 31st massacre.
Aid to the Church in Need last week announced a series of emergency aid packages for displaced Christians fleeing to the north and east of the country, with ongoing support for refugees in neighboring Syria, Jordan and Turkey.
The charity agreed to send $33,300 to provide Christmas food packages for displaced Christians in Zakho, which borders Turkey and Syria.
The aid is being delivered by a team of volunteers – many of them young people – led by the Chaldean Sisters of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate.
Other ACN help includes $20,000 for the victims of the October 31st massacre and their families plus a further $13,300 for displaced Christians arriving in the northern and eastern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah.
Archbishop Warda said, “ACN’s help is being welcomed with joy by the people. They feel very grateful and they are encouraged by the fact that they are being remembered by others more fortunate than themselves.”
Aid to the Church in Need is prioritizing help for the Middle East in line with a request from Benedict XVI.
In 2007 the Pope asked the charity to help the Middle East where he said “the local Church is threatened in its very existence.”