December 26, 2017

Christians living in the areas effected by the spread of terrorism passed a difficult Christmas this year. Although the collapse of Islamic State (ISIS) in Northern Iraq and Syria enabled the local Christians to celebrate Christmas for the first time in the past few years, the torment that the Christian community has suffered from is far from disappearing from the minds. Approximately 150.000 Christians had to flee Iraq since 2014, and only 250.000 Christians are believed to remain in the country. The momentary euphoria caused by the collapse of ISIS, whose brutal rule did not leave any choice for the community other than conversion, heavy taxing, or death, left its place to apprehensiveness on Christmas.

Even though Christians seemed glad and thankful for being able to celebrate Christmas again at their burnt and ravaged churches, they were concerned about their future. Evidently, it is not easy for the Christian community to heal its wounds and live as if ISIS had never happened. The saddening fact that the defeat of ISIS does not indicate the end of terrorism in this region also concerns Christians deeply, where a structural poverty reigns amidst the population and the insufficiency of states to meet the basic needs of their people leave the youth disoriented. Despite the apparent difficulty of rebuilding their lives and the fragility of the security in the region, Christians remained hopeful on Christmas. During the Christmas Eve Mass, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Chaldean Catholic Church said, ‘With this mass, we are sending a message of peace and love, because Christ is the messenger of peace.’

In Pakistan, Christians marked Christmas amidst anxiety as well. Pakistan deployed commandos inside and around a church in the southwestern city of Quetta Monday as its grieving but defiant congregation marked Christmas days after they were targeted in a deadly Islamic State-claimed attack. Snipers were positioned on top of the church, as survivors spoke of their lost loved ones and called for the congregation to be armed at a quiet, sombre service. One injured survivor burst into tears while approaching the altar to receive Communion, with other members of the congregation weeping as they watched.

‘It is normally a joyful day, but it is painful… for all of us that attended the service while remembering the day of attack, as well as our near and dear,’ told one young worshipper, Aftab, to Agence France Presse.

The suicide bomb attack last Sunday killed nine people and wounded 30 during a service at the Methodist church in Quetta, capital of restive Balochistan province. Officials said that police intercepted and shot dead one attacker outside the church before he could detonate his bomb. But the second managed to reach the church’s main door, where he blew himself up. Christians are often targeted in Pakistan. In 2013, 82 people were killed when suicide bombers attacked a church in the city of Peshawar. And last year, Lahore suffered one of Pakistan’s deadliest attacks, a suicide bombing in a park that killed more than 70 people, including many children, on Easter.

Pakistan and Iraq are only two examples of those countries where it remains difficult for Christians to celebrate Christmas in peace. Apart from violence and threats that they face in numerous countries, the recognition of Jerusalem by the United States as the capital of Israel upset the Christians living in Palestine as well. In Bethlehem, near the birthplace of Jesus, Christmas lights were switched off in protest to the American decision. ‘The Christmas tree was switched off on the order of the mayor today in protest at Trump’s decision,’ said Fady Ghattas, Bethlehem’s municipal media officer. Disregarding the Christian and Muslim heritage of the holy city and recognising it as the capital of Israel angered the local Christian population as well as the Muslim one. Atallah Hanna, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, said: ‘We Palestinians, Christians and Muslims reject the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.’ Speaking at a news conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, he called President Donald Trump’s move ‘an insult to Christians and Muslims around the world, who consider Jerusalem as an incubator of their most sacred, spiritual and national heritage.’