Concrete walls are being hastily erected around churches in Iraq in the fear that al-Qaeda terrorists will try to slaughter congregations during services on Christmas Day.
The Iraqi government is scrambling to build the 10ft-high barriers to prevent a repeat of the massacre of more than 40 Christians at Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad in October.
Churches in Baghdad and Mosul will not only be barricaded but will be accessed only through gates manned by armed guards and police with scanning equipment.
Christmas festivities will also be scaled back so that there will be no public sign of the celebration – such as processions, parties and decorations – in major Iraqi cities this year. Archbishop Bashar Wardaof Erbil, told the Aid to the Church in Need charity that entering a church already made worshippers feel that they were going into “a military camp”.
“The sadness of the people is everywhere,” he said. “Uncertainty is everywhere. The question on everyone’s lips is: ‘What’s next?’.”
He added: “There is a kind of desperation. But whatever happens, the people are determined to celebrate the Christmas liturgy by any means possible.” The archbishop said that government officials had contacted every parish priest in the country to ask if they wanted the security walls around their churches. Many clergy have accepted the offer while others said they felt the measures would simply intimidate an already fearful Christian community.
Christians in Iraq have been calling for government protection since gunmen burst into a Mass at the Baghdad cathedral on October 31, the eve of the feast of All Saints’ Day. Police stormed the building as militants started shooting worshippers, including a three-year-old child, but the gunmen detonated explosive vests killing themselves and some of the security services, leaving a total of 58 people dead and more than 70 injured.
Al-Qaeda has since threatened to annihilate the entire Christian community and has increased bombing and shooting attacks, causing an exodus of at least 2,000 refugees from the country’s urban centres.
The Christian community in Iraq is among the oldest in the world, dating from the first century, with most living in the region known biblically as Nineveh. The majority are Chaldeans, who are in communion with the Catholic Church and who speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. They include Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s former deputy who was sentenced to death in October for the “persecution of Islamic parties”.
Other ancient Christian churches, such as Syriac and Armenian, also flourished in the predominantly Muslim country until the 2003 US-led invasion when Christians became identified with a foreign invader. In the years that followed numbers of Christians fell by more than half – from an estimated 800,000 to about 300,000 – with most fleeing to neighbouring Arab countries such as Jordan and Syria.
The United Nations has reported that 44 per cent of all refugees were Christians in spite of representing such a small minority.
The renewed wave of attacks has prompted even more Christians to try to flee their country but last month Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister, ruled out the possibility of any coming to Britain.
Mr Burt said that the Government considered Iraq safe for repatriation because it was no longer a war-torn country, a view which was challenged by the European Court of Human Rights in a letter to the Foreign Office in October.
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have also criticised the Government’s policy, saying it was based on claims that were simply “untrue”.
They have urged the Government “to review its treatment of asylum seekers to ensure that those who have suffered persecution are given the protection that they deserve and to increase assistance to those Iraqis who have fled”.
Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham said in a homily in Westminster Cathedral that the Christians of Iraq were dying as martyrs for the faith while the West ignored their plight.