Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Friday, 25 December 2009

Iraqi Christians' still face uncertain future

Christmas decorations on sale in Baghdad
Muslims buy Christmas decorations in a Baghdad market, where both faiths have worshipped side by side for centuries

By Rob Walker
BBC News, Baghdad

At the church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad, hymns sung in the ancient Aramaic language float through intricately carved wooden doors into a small courtyard outside.

They mix with religious songs blasted from the loudspeakers of a mosque opposite.

Next to the church, two Muslim women, veiled in black, wait for their turn to light candles to the Virgin Mary.

In Iraq, Christians and Muslims have worshipped side by side for centuries.

Iraqi  bishop
Our situation is Iraq's situation - now we pray the situation will become better
Shlemon Warduni
Auxiliary Bishop

But half of the congregation of the Virgin Mary church have fled in recent years.

"They have gone either to the north of Iraq or to other countries because of the situation, the car bombings and kidnappings. There is no security, no peace," said Auxiliary Bishop, Shlemon Warduni.

Outside the gate, a group of policemen stand guard. Earlier this year, a car bomb exploded right in front of the church.

Iraq's defence ministry has said that the army will be on high alert this Christmas. It said it had received intelligence indicating Christians could be attacked.

On Wednesday, two people were killed when a bomb exploded outside a church in the northern city of Mosul, one of the latest in a series of attacks against Christians there in recent months.

According to some estimates, half of Iraq's Christian minority have left their homes since the American-led invasion in 2003.

Last straw

Leila Paulos is about to join them. This will be her last Christmas in Baghdad.

Leila [l] and Seevar [r]
Many Iraqi Christians have fled the country

Her son, Seevar, was kidnapped by criminals, and only freed after the family paid a ransom.

For Leila it was the last straw. In a few weeks, her family leave for Sweden.

"Of course, its sad to leave Iraq. Its the country of our ancestors, but there's nothing we can do. Most of the Christians who live in our neighbourhood have left."

But there are some signs things are improving. Baghdad is much safer now than two years ago.

In the centre of the capital, Christmas decorations are on sale in a way that would not have been possible during the worst of the violence.

It's not just Christians buying them.

Two laughing Muslim women show me the contents of their bulging shopping bags: a bright red plastic Father Christmas, and Christmas tree decorations.

"Christmas is for everyone, we celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve just like the Christians," they tell me.

They hope the Christians who have fled Iraq will come back.

"This is their country. It's not for the Muslims, it's for Christians and Muslims. Iraq used to be a country of all Iraqis, and we hope it will be again."

It may take time for those hopes to be realised. But some Christians have returned to their homes in Baghdad.

'Yearning for Iraq'

Intisar Shawkat Jirjees achieved the dream of many Iraqi Christians: a home and a garden in a safe suburb in America.

Intisar Shawkat Jirjees
Most of my neighbours are Muslims - when I came back, they said they'd missed me
Intisar Shawkat Jirjees
Iraqi Christian

But Intisar says she found life difficult in America. This month she moved back to Baghdad with her daughters.

"We felt a yearning for Iraq. We missed the people and their kindness. We missed the soil and the trees, and I missed my neighbours," she said.

This will be the family's first Christmas back in their home in Dora, a neighbourhood in Baghdad which saw some of the worst of the sectarian violence. Most of the Christians fled.

Intisar hopes things are better now.

"Most of my neighbours are Muslims. When I came back they took me by the arms, and they said they'd missed me."

It is not just Christians who have faced the threat of kidnappings or bombs since 2003.

Despite the improvements in security, Iraqis of all faiths are still afraid of when and where the next explosion will hit.

"Our situation is Iraq's situation," said Bishop Warduni. "Now we pray the situation will become better."

The future of Iraq's Christians is tied to the rest of Iraq. It is a future which is still uncertain.

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