New York Times / www.nytimes.com / December 25, 2007
By Damien Cave
Baghdad — Inside the beige church guarded by the men with the AK-47s, a choir sang Christmas songs in Arabic. An old woman in black closed her eyes while a girl in a cherry-red dress, with tights and shoes to match, craned her neck toward rows of empty pews near the back. “Last year it was full,” said Yusef Hanna, a parishioner. “So many people have left — gone up north, or out of the country.”
Sacred Heart Church is not Iraq’s largest or most beleaguered Christian congregation. It is as ordinary as its steeple is squat, in one of Baghdad’s safest neighborhoods, with a small school next door.
But for those who came to Sacred Heart for Mass on Christmas Eve, there seemed to be as much sadness as joy. Despite the improved security across Iraq, which some parishioners cited as cause for hope, the day’s sermon focused on continuing struggles.
Iraq’s Christians have fared poorly since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with their houses or businesses frequently attacked. Some priests estimate that as much as two-thirds of the community, or about one million people, have fled, making Sacred Heart typical. Though a handful have recently returned from abroad, only 120 people attended Mass on Monday night, down from 400 two years
The service began with traditional hymns. Some songs were sung in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It was a reminder of the 2,000-year-old history of Iraq’s largest Christian group, the Chaldeans, an Eastern Rite church affiliated with Roman Catholicism.
Initially the sermon seemed equally traditional, beginning as many do with phrases like “This day is not like other days.”
Yet the priest, the Rev. Thaer al-Sheik, soon turned to more local themes. He talked about the psychological impact of violence, kidnapping and a lack of work. He condemned hate. He denounced revenge.
“We must practice being humane to each other,” he said. “Living as a Christian today is difficult.”
A few moments later he asked, “If the angel Gabriel comes today and says Jesus Christ is reborn, what do we do? Do we clap or sing?”
His parish, quiet and somber — with the drab faces of a funeral, not a Mass on Christmas Eve — took the question seriously. And responded.
“We ask him for forgiveness,” said a woman, her head covered by a black scarf. Her voice was just loud enough for everyone to hear.
Then another woman raised her voice. “We ask for peace,” she said.
Father Sheik looked disappointed. “We are always like beggars, asking God for this or that,” he said. “We shouldn’t be this way. First, we should thank God for giving us Jesus Christ. He would say, ‘I came to live among you. I want to teach you how to be compassionate. I want to teach you how to be more humane.’”
The people listened intently. No one smiled.
Communion followed. A stream of people — the choir’s keyboardist, a woman in black with eyes pink from crying through the service, an attractive young woman in thick makeup — came forward. They moved slowly down the center aisle, stepping onto what appeared to be Persian rugs, a few feet from an artificial Christmas tree in the corner with flashing red and green lights.
A woman ran wooden rosary beads through her fingers, which without the small cross on the end, looked exactly like Muslim prayer beads.
And among some, there was hope. Mary Hannawi, 50, said before the service that coming to church always made her happy, regardless of the circumstances outside its guarded walls.
But even Father Sheik could not resist asking God for a little help. He ended his sermon with a request that all Iraqis would love to see fulfilled.
“We call on God for equality, freedom — an end to war and an end to hunger,” he said. “We only demand from God peace for all of you.”
Wisam A. Habeeb contributed reporting