At the Christmas Eve pageant at St. Mary’s Chaldean Church, the appearance of the baby Jesus (a blue-eyed doll in swaddling) got the biggest applause, but the Three Kings were also close to the worshipers’ hearts.
According to church lore, this land was home to the Wise Men who went in search of the newborn King. So when three little boys in paper crowns followed the star on a string to a cardboard Bethlehem, the congregation buzzed in recognition.
It was a moment of joy for the worshipers, a moment more precious this year, perhaps, because for Iraq’s Christian community, this is not the season to be jolly.
Uncertainty over the prospects of war and peace as well as the ever-present insecurity of Middle East Christian minorities have combined to dull the holiday spirits.
“We do not feel genuine happiness. The situation does not let the people be content,” noted Father Kamal Bidawid, the parish priest at St. Mary’s, in an interview before the service.
He recalled that even the building of the Bethlehem stable for the church pageant had been hampered by the possibility of war. The army’s sudden induction of one of the carpenters for duty in Kuwait delayed the construction.
“It is a time of great insecurity for the youth,” Bidawid said. “They don’t know what their future will be.”
The Chaldean church is one of the Eastern-rite churches that shows allegiance to the Vatican. Its members make up the majority of Iraq’s 800,000 Christians, 4% of Iraq’s mainly Muslim population.
The congregations of Christians, which include Eastern-rite as well as small Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, are dwindling. Emigration is the main drain, although intermarriage with the Muslim community also erodes the Christian population.
Reliable emigration numbers are unavailable, but Christian leaders concur that the exodus is taking a bite out of their flock. After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, the government liberalized permission for travel abroad. Of the 300 families in Bidawid’s parish, 20 left and never returned.
“When they were free to travel, they just went away in a flash,” the priest recalled.
Detroit is a magnet for Iraqi Christians. The urge to flee the Middle East, however, is far from limited to the Christians of Iraq.
In Lebanon, 15 years of turmoil was capped this year with special distress. Syria successfully invaded the Christian Maronite heartland north of Beirut to impose a peace accord. Some Christians think that the Maronites, stripped of their traditional power in Lebanon, will be swallowed up in the Muslim majority.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, a rising tide of Islamic fervor is compounding difficulties faced by the minority Christians as they participate in the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule.
The largely middle-class Christians have been battered by economic hardship, and the pace of emigration is rising.
Underground Muslim groups fighting Israeli rule have begun to impose Islamic habits on the Palestinian population at large. Store owners selling pork have been threatened, and women who walk in public without shawls are branded as immodest.
Church leaders in Jerusalem and Bethlehem predict that if emigration trends continue, the Holy Land will become but a museum of Christianity, a terrain of shrines without a worshiping population.
“It is hard to be Christian in the Middle East,” remarked Paul Dahdah, the Roman Catholic bishop of Baghdad. “We have the difficult goal of maintaining a presence in the land of the birth of Christianity.”
In Iraq, emigration has been stimulated by war, dictatorship and economic decline. Fear of Muslim dominance is less of a factor, church leaders say; under the iron rule of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Baath Socialist Party, Iraq is officially a secular state.
On occasion, the government makes gestures to the Christian population, and recently it bought new organs for several churches.
However, as possible war with the United States and its allies approaches, Hussein has taken steps to cement the support of Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population. The propaganda barrage has given his regime a sharp Islamic flavor. Some Christians are afraid that after the Persian Gulf conflict, a tide of yearning for fundamentalist Islamic rule may take hold and breed intolerance.
“You must remember that Iran is close by and ruled by imams,” said a merchant who belongs to the Chaldean church. “Jordan is experiencing a Muslim revival. Who says it cannot happen here?”
“The government does not encourage fundamentalism,” said Bidawid, the parish priest. “But, of course, the country is clearly Muslim.”
At this time of year, Baghdad little resembles a candidate for Islamic statehood. Parts of the city are decked with colored lights, and Christmas trees and decorations are for sale at a few markets.
Hotels pipe carols into elevators and invite Christian choirs to sing in the lobby. Many Muslims express sympathy with the holiday; among the large Shiite population there is a grass-roots adoration of the Virgin Mary, who it is believed answers prayers for fertility.
This Christmas is not a time of plenty in Iraq; a worldwide trade embargo has cut food supplies and caused rationing. Parishioners at St. Mary’s say that although the embargo has made some foods scarce and expensive, they have enough to get by.
Church leaders are critical of the embargo and doubt that it can be used to squeeze Iraq out of Kuwait.
“Is the idea that with the embargo, the civilian population will rebel against the regime?” asked Bishop Dahdah. “That is only a hypothesis.”
They are reluctant to comment on the invasion of Kuwait. “As a minority, there is always fear,” remarked Dahdah, who is of Lebanese origin.
The Chaldean is one of the Middle East’s most venerable churches. According to church lore, it was founded by the Apostle Thomas, who stopped in Mesopotamia to preach on his way to India, and the language of Chaldean liturgy is Aramaic, the native tongue of Christ.
The church takes its name from Chalde, an ancient designation for the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Church historians say it was the first nation to form after the devastation of the great biblical flood.
“We have ancient roots here, so it is hard for us to think we will disappear from this land,” said Bidawid, who estimated the total membership of the Chaldean church worldwide at 2 million.
On Christmas Eve, his church was packed with worshipers seated in the traditional manner, men at the front and women at the back.
The humble pageant was notable for the authenticity of its simple costumes: Here, the scarf on Mary was carefully folded over her forehead in the same way many women in the Middle East still wear it. The shepherds’ robes looked to be right off the desert; the Bethlehem innkeeper wore the traditional kaffiyeh head scarf of Arab men.
Although hardly unusual for Christmas, the sermon seemed tailor-made for the times, as Bidawid intoned, “We must pray harder than ever for peace.”