Renewed Christmas spirit brings peace on earth in turbulent Middle East

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ARA_news_syr110512aa001.jpegCAIRO — While many Middle East Christians are marking the holidays filled with worry about terrorist attacks and repression in a turbulent region, the diverse Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac communities in Iraq have something to cheer this year.

Santa Claus has come to Mosul.

A female Iraqi teenager inspired by the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq’s third-largest city said she wanted to don the red suit and beard and bring Christmas back to the town it was banished from for three long years.

“I decided to dress as Santa Claus, visit the people and give them a simple gift: a message of hope, love and peace,” Ghenwa Ghassan, 17, said as she handed out coloring books and toys.

A video of Ghenwa, a slim young woman meandering joyfully through the ruins of Mosul, has gone viral in Iraq, where Christmas now seems to be catching on as symbol of a better future even among some Muslims.

“It’s surprising to see shops selling Christmas trees and other holiday decorations,” said Ameen Al-Jaleeli, 29, a lecturer of English at Mosul University. “Even before ISIS, this would have been impossible here.

“Even though I already bought one tree, I was so happy to see this I bought a second one.”

The dramatic shift is shocking for Christians in Mosul, who have lived a dark decade since Islamists killed Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho in 2008. Six years later, in June 2014, they were driven from their homes when Islamic State militants overran the city.

“The last Christmas Mass here was in 2013,” said the Rev. Martin Banni, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Karamlesh, 18 miles southeast of the city. “Now, we lift the cross again over the Church of Mar Paulos to host the first Christmas celebration.”

Even with the bloody ouster of Islamic State from Mosul and its other strongholds in northern Iraq, the suffering was not over for the area’s beleaguered Christians. Christmas celebrations in Iraq come this season after a tense autumn, when many Christians were forced to flee their homes in the Nineveh Plain as Iraqi government troops battled Kurdish militia for control of the area.

Iraq had about 1.5 million Christians at the start of the 2003 war against the Saddam Hussein regime. International Christian aid and advocacy groups say that figure could now be as low as 300,000 in a region with some of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

“Emigration of members of minority communities continues as the chances of seeing restored stability are still far away,” said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive at Christian Solidarity Worldwide in London.

Beirut: The ugliest tree

That exodus is echoed across the region: Regional wars, combined with educational and entrepreneurial opportunities elsewhere, have led to a considerable decline in the Arab Christian population in the eastern Mediterranean: Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Some 30,000 Syrian Christians moved back to their ancestral home of Armenia since the start of the Syrian war.

Syrian Christian refugees from multiple sects also have often received preferences for resettlement in Western countries.

Lebanon’s Christian population lost its majority status decades ago, but the exact number is unknown. Because of political sensitivities in the divided country, Lebanese authorities have not conducted a census in 85 years.

Yet numbers from the country’s voter registry show that only 37 percent of the Lebanese electorate is Christian.

Christians comprise 35 percent of Lebanon’s current population, compared with 51 percent in 1932.

Still, Beirut prides itself as the most Christmas-friendly city in the region.

“You can’t miss the Christmas decorations in Beirut and its northern suburbs,” said Joe Saliba, a 32-year-old aircraft engineer.

Fireworks welcome in the season, and a massive tree is lit up in downtown’s Martyrs’ Square, equidistant from the Al-Amin Mosque and St. George’s Maronite Cathedral.

Mr. Saliba noted that those holiday lights stop in Hezbollah-dominated territory south of Beirut’s airport.

“They removed the Christmas tree from the airport this year, but the reason wasn’t hostility to Christmas,” Mr. Saliba said.

“People didn’t get the concept — Middle East Airlines used recycled aircraft parts and repurposed discarded scrap metal as ornaments, and the general reaction was that it was ugly.”

Jerusalem: Oh come all ye faithful

The number of Christians living in Israel and the Palestinian territories is also a matter of dispute in the Holy Land.

But it’s clear that the community is smaller in absolute and relative size since the 1948 war that resulted in the creation of a Jewish state.

More Arab Christians live inside Israel, about 110,000, compared with fewer than 50,000 in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the U.S. State Department.

This year, Christians in towns such as Bethlehem and Nazareth got caught up in the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian clash over land after President Trump declared that the U.S. Embassy will relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a potentially explosive move.

Nazareth announced it would cancel Christmas celebrations before relenting to allow its annual festivities to proceed. But the political tensions were evident even in the holiest of Christian sites.

“Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of Palestine,” read banners hung from balconies in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

Still, hotel owners and sellers of olive wood tree ornaments and Nativity scenes have been reluctant to support activists calling to cancel or scale back festivities in protest of the decision.

“The youth were so busy going out to demonstrations in solidarity with our homeland and Jerusalem, and we delayed the Manger Square tree lighting,” said Danila Doqmaq, a 21-year-old dentistry student at Al-Quds University.

“But today in Bethlehem, we see Muslims and Christians together celebrating this event with respect, despite all the forces trying to ruin this relationship between them.”

The Israeli Tourism Ministry provided free shuttle buses between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the holiday.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said he was proud that Israel was set to end 2017 with a record 3.5 million visitors — nearly half of them Christian pilgrims who visit sites including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City.

Although the United Nations General Assembly was rejecting Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move by a 128-9 vote in New York, Mr. Levin said, the doors remain open to Christians.

“Israel invites the faithful from all religions to pray, worship and visit all the holy sites in freedom and security,” he said.

Jerusalem native Issanis Kassissieh 39, said he will attend Christmas services at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is believed to be at the site of Jesus’ Crucifixion.

“The religious traditions matter to me, but for the last 10 years, I’ve tried to make children and their parents happier on the holiday,” said Mr. Kassissieh, who learned how to be a professional Kriss Kringle at a special Santa Claus school in Denver.

“Don’t ask me about the embassy thing — Santa never joins in political discussions,” joked the former pro basketball player.

“Now Santa has a home inside the walls of the Old City, and he’s heard the wishes of more than 300 children,” Mr. Kassissieh said with a wink.

Cairo: Staying put

Meanwhile, adhering to their ancient calendar, the Coptic Christians of Egypt celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Even weeks before the observations, though, the Interior Ministry in Cairo has already allocated 230,000 security personnel to secure the country’s 2,626 churches.

Over the past two years, terrorist attacks on churches during Christian holidays left dozens of worshippers killed and many injured.

Last year, a suicide attack in Cairo’s St. Peter and St. Paul Church killed 29 people, mostly women and children.

This Christmas, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s leader, Pope Tawadros II, will dedicate a cathedral in Egypt’s new administrative capital, being built 28 miles east of Cairo.

“Western Christians sometimes forget that the Holy Family came to Egypt for safety shortly after Christ’s birth,” said Fady Samy, an optician in suburban Cairo. “It may feel dangerous for many Egyptian Christians today, but this is our holy land, and it’s impossible for 9 million Christians to flee the country.

“I’d be lying to say that we are not sometimes afraid, or that I don’t have thoughts about skipping church on Christmas and staying at home for the festive meal,” Mr. Samy said. “But since I was a teenager, I have served as an officiant at the holiday Mass, and I plan on doing the same this year.”
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