By Zaineb Salah Ahmed in Baghdad
Sunday 25 December 2005, 9:23 Makka Time, 6:23 GMT
Iraqi Christians light a bonfire on Christmas Eve
Church blasts fail to dent Iraqi unity
Islamist groups deny role in church blasts
Iraqi Muslims, Christians stress unity
Several killed in attack on Iraqi churches
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Sayta Tohma, an Assyrian Christian in Baghdad, added the crowning ornament - a gold glitter Styrofoam star - to the small plastic tree in the living room and smiled with satisfaction.
"We can't have midnight mass like before - but that does not mean we can't have Christmas," she told her three young children.
For nearly three generations, Tohma's family traditionally attended midnight mass at the Baghdad church on 52nd Street in eastern Baghdad.
"My family and my husband's family would all meet in the church at night and listen to Christmas songs and prayers until after midnight."
This year, because of rapidly deteriorating security in the country, Tohma's family will not be attending mass or any other Christmas celebrations outside their home.
Since the war in 2003, Iraq's Christians, who make up between 3 - 5% of the population, have been feeling the pressures of religious extremism in the predominantly Islamic country.
Tohma's family lives in the upper middle class Zayouna neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad, surrounded by both Christian and Muslim neighbours.
"Abu Mohammed lives on the right side, and Abu Ban's family live on the left side. Abu Mohammed is a Muslim and Abu Ban is a Chaldean Catholic - we share Christmas with both of them."
"We have no problem with Muslims and Muslims do not have a problem with us. We are all Iraqi"
Tohma interrupted our conversation politely as she rose to greet Umm Ban and her sister-in-law, who had come by for a pre-Christmas visit.
"We have no problem with Muslims and Muslims do not have a problem with us. We are all Iraqi," Umm Ban told Aljazeera.net.
When asked about the pressures facing Iraqi Christians since the war, she shrugs her shoulders: "It is always the bad people, the extremists, who speak the loudest - they are the ones people can hear."
"Iraqi Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries - there are foreigners who do not like to see this harmony amongst Iraqis."
She nods her head towards a five-year-old standing in the kitchen doorway, "Omar is my sister's son - his mother is a Catholic and his father is a Muslim. I love him like I love my own children."
Umm Ban has been giving refuge to her brother's family since late 2004, when they left their house in the mercantile area of Karrada, only 10 minutes away from Zayouna.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Karrada became the headquarters to several religious political parties including offices for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Last December, Umm Ban's sister-in-law, Suzan, was accosted by two men in black as she walked her eight-year-old daughter to school.
She was told not to leave the house without covering her head.
"I lived in Karrada for 30 years, but I left my house behind because I won't allow strangers to dictate my lifestyle," Suzan told Aljazeera.net.
She explained that her husband left for Jordan to seek work and would send for her and her daughter as soon as it was economically feasible.
Suzan's anticipated departure from Iraq is endemic of the plight of Christians in the country since the March 2003 invasion.
Some Christians in the southern region in and around Basra have left for more secure refuge among the larger Christian communities of Baghdad and Mosul.
Christian families that can afford to leave the country are seeking the religious freedoms in the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Syria.
Kirkuk Christians held only a
peace prayer due to the invasion
"My mother, sister and her two children left last year to Syria because the conditions in Baghdad are so bad - the church arranged for them to leave the country," Tohma said.
In recent months, Christian families have informally registered with the head of their church for immigration abroad, and after a certain waiting period, are ushered out of the country with financial support.
"We were registered before Abu Nashwan's family," Tohma confides, serving small shakar lama, a dense, sweet biscuit, and cardamom tea.
"But they left before us because Nashwan, their son, was arrested by people from the Ministry of Interior in July because they say he was selling liquor."
Tohma's eldest daughter, Rita, a dark-eyed 15-year-old, pointed to a house across the street.
"We spent Christmas night at their house every year until they left. I miss their daughter - she was my best friend."
Trouble for Christians in Iraq began in August 2004 when a series of churches were targeted in what seemed like coordinated attacks.
On 2 August, 11 people were killed and more than 60 wounded when bombs exploded in four churches in Baghdad during mass services.
Damage from an attack on a
church in Mosul in 2004
A church in Mosul was also attacked.
At the time, Iraq's National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie said Al Qaida in Iraq was to blame for the attacks.
In October 2004, five Baghdad churches were also firebombed during predawn hours causing extensive damage.
Last Christmas, three churches in Mosul were firebombed.
Members of the Christian community have also complained of being pressured to wear the head covering by militia groups.
Many Christians who have worked as translators for US forces and foreign companies have been found dead in recent years.
When asked if her family would be leaving the country, Umm Ban said she would wait out the outcome of the 15 December elections.
"If the same people win the elections, then we will be leaving - there is nothing to stay for. The situation for Christians will go from bad to worse. We voted for a non-religious list because only they can ensure the rights of all religions in the country."
As the hours counted down to Christmas morning, Umm Ban reflected on the meaning of Christmas for her family.
"It is about being with the people you love and the family - and most of my family have left abroad for security fears. They are what I miss most..."
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