Uncertain Christmas for Iraqi Christians

At first glance, it seemed like Christmas at Bassem Khedhr's home Sunday — a green tree with flickering lights stood in the living room, everyone wore new clothes, and the women baked holiday pastries.

But the hardships of daily life dampened the festivities. Khedhr missed Christmas morning Mass because he had to fix the house's generator, and his mother was jolted awake in the morning by four explosions.

Security concerns ruled out past treats like a visit to the amusement park. Khedhr has virtually banned pleasure trips of any kind for his family because of Baghdad's violence and crime.

"It doesn't feel like it's Christmas," said Khedhr, a 39-year-old electrical appliance repairman. "I bought this Christmas tree so that I could look at it and remember what Christmas felt like— only remember, not celebrate."

Khedhr sat under oversized rosary beads that adorn a wall of the old, drab house he shares with 12 relatives. Khedhr and his family are Chaldeans, members of an Eastern-rite church that is loyal to the pope, but does not follow the Roman Catholic Church's rites.

In many ways, Khedhr says, his Christian community suffers from the same woes that trouble Iraqis from other religious and ethnic groups. But with thousands of Christians fleeing a country growing increasingly Islamic and conservative, his family feels a little more vulnerable this Christmas.

This year, the holiday comes at a time when the religious Shiite Muslim coalition that dominates the current government looks set to become the largest bloc in Iraq's first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

Khedhr said he refrained from voting for Christian tickets in the Dec. 15 election because he felt the Christian community is too small to affect the results. In last Jan. 30's vote for an interim legislature, the main Christian slate won just one of the 275 seats.

This time, Khedhr voted for a coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.

"But I told my friends that I voted for 555 so no one would harass me," he said, referring to the candidate list number of the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. "The Sunnis are backed by their tribes. So are the Shiites. But us Christians don't have support, so I seek protection from a Shiite tribe."

Christians make up an estimated 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million people. Thousands have fled Iraq since several churches were blown up by car bombs in August and September 2004.

Christmas was bittersweet for Khedhr's wife, Sahera Eissa. Her parents and all her relatives now live outside Iraq. Some left under Saddam; others followed after the U.S.-led invasion.

"This is our country, but I feel homesick because my family is away," said the 28-year-old housewife.

On Sunday morning, Eissa went out just once — to Christmas Mass at a nearby church.

"I wanted Mass to end quickly because I was afraid," she said. "My children want to go out, but I am scared for them because of the explosions."

She feels constrained by the city's insecurity.

"I want to show off my new clothes, but there is no place to go," Eissa said, wearing black pants and a fiery red top with matching lipstick.

She had on her special jewelry: gold hoop earrings; two gold necklaces, a cross dangling from one of them; bracelets and rings. But she said she would take the gold off later Sunday before going out to visit her sister-in-law's parents, for fear of thieves and kidnappers.

As Eissa's family gathered around a television set, her mother called from Canada.

"The call made me happy, but also sad," she said after hanging up. "She told me that on Christmas Eve they were out until two a.m. They rented a hall, hired a DJ and got together to celebrate Christmas."

In Baghdad, many people just stay home after dark.

Khedhr wants to leave Iraq, but not without his extended family. "I cannot just save myself and then be worried about them," he said.

His mother, Ibtsama Matti, expressed similar sentiments. "We all want to leave, but we don't want to separate," she said.

Matti's brother, Farid Matti, stopped by to have lunch with the family, apologizing for being late.

"It took me 45 minutes to get here because there was an explosion on the way," he explained.

He handed his sister's grandchildren a few crisp banknotes, each worth 1,000 Iraqi dinars — about 60 cents — in a traditional gift for children.

"Meelad asked Santa Claus for a machine gun," Thaera Karim, Khedhr's sister-in-law, said about one of the children. "Before they used to be happy with a car or a doll, but now it's only guns that they want."