For first time, Christmas official holiday in Iraq
By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz, Associated Press
Writer Thu Dec 25, 6:41 am ET

BAGHDAD - Iraq's Christians, a scant minority in this overwhelmingly
Muslim country, quietly celebrated Christmas on Thursday with a
present from the government, which declared it an official holiday for
the first time.

But security worries overshadowed the day for many, particularly in
the north where thousands of Christians have fled to escape religious
attacks.

Overall security in Iraq has improved markedly in the past year, but a
fatal car bombing in Baghdad on Christmas morning was a gruesome
reminder that serious problems remain.

The bombing outside a restaurant frequented by police killed four
people and wounded 25 others in the Shiite neighborhood of Shula, said
a police officer on condition of anonymity because he was not
authorized to give information to news media.

Also on Thursday, an oil official said attackers blew up a pipeline in
the city of Kirkuk. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
said the attack happened Wednesday and pumping was expected to resume
within three days.

In his homily on Thursday, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly
praised the establishment of Christmas as an official holiday as a
step toward easing tensions.

"I thank the government for giving chances to all to serve each other
for the general benefit, and I thank it too for making this day an
official holiday where we pray to God to make us trust each other as
brothers," he said at the Christmas Mass before several dozen
worshippers in the small chapel of a Baghdad monastery.

A senior Shiite cleric, Ammar al-Hakim, attended the Mass flanked by
bodyguards in a gesture of cooperation with Christians.

"I thank the visitors here and ask them to share happiness and love
with their brothers on Christmas; by this they will build a glorious
Iraq," the cardinal said.

"We came here to bring a message of love, respect and gratitude to our
Christian brothers and to share happiness with them as we have shared
sadness with them during the cruel targeting they came under,"
al-Hakim said in an interview with al-Furat TV. "We will do our best
for equality between people and a good life for all, whatever their
religious, sectarian and ethnic background."

He is the son and heir-apparent of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, Iraq's biggest
mainstream Shiite party.

Iraq's Christians, estimated to number only a few hundred thousand of
the country's 26 million people, have often been the target of attacks
by Islamic extremists in Iraq. Tens of thousands have fled; many of
those who stayed were isolated in neighborhoods protected by
barricades and checkpoints.

A coordinated bombing campaign in 2004 targeted churches in the Iraqi
capital and anti-Christian violence also flared in September 2007
after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be against Islam.

For Mariam Polis, who fled her home in Mosul a year ago after
anti-Christian threats spread and two priests were killed, this
Christmas was a day of bitterness.

"There's not enough money, no house, no stability to prepare for
Christmas Eve," said the 55-year-old woman who now occupies a one-room
clay house in the northern village of Ein Kawa. "It is better for us
to die."

But for another woman who fled to Ein Kawa, there was a bit of cheer
thanks to money sent from abroad by her brother.

"We got a bright Christmas tree - it is a symbol we love," Raeida
Anwar Abid said.

In the city of Sulaimaniyah in Kurdistan, which is comparatively
orderly, many Christians spent hours at a Christmas Eve Mass at the
Mar Joseph church.

"Iraq is bleeding and we have to heal the wounds with united hands,"
priest Dinha Toma said the service.

___

Associated Press writers Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah and Sinan
Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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