In order to meet Iraq's Christians this year, Santa Claus will have to steer his sleigh to Jordan, Syria, Kurdistan or Europe. After Al-Qaida's October 31 massacre at a central Baghdad church, thousands of Christians have decided that their homeland is no longer safe.
This is not the first time Muslim terror has hit Christian sites, nor is it the first time Christians have fled Iraq. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there were approximately 1 million Christians in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, and only half a million now - and that number is shrinking.
This week the Iraqi legislature discussed the Christians' situation and passed a resolution in principle to help families who fled. However, the parliament does not know where the Christians are, how many are still in Iraq, in their homes, and how many have found asylum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Reports from Iraq show some Christians are even afraid to report they have received threatening phone calls or e-mails telling them to leave the country.
"Contacting the authorities forces us to identify ourselves, and we aren't certain that some of the people threatening us aren't the people in the government offices that are supposed to be protecting us," one Christian Iraqi told the newspaper Sawt al-Iraq. Others have reported masked men coming to their homes at night and demanding that they "convert to Islam, leave or die."
Though the Iraqi authorities have posted security forces at churches in major cities, community leaders have decided they will celebrate Christmas Eve only the following afternoon, and are calling upon Christians to celebrate in modest home ceremonies and not to be overly visible in the streets.
In recent months a proposal was raised to concentrate the country's Christians in a single city, Nineveh, where the authorities would protect them. However, for this, the authorities need a special budget that doesn't exist right now. Moreover, the Kurds object to establishment of a protected Christian enclave, because they want to annex the Nineveh Valley, most of whose residents are Christians.
Iraqi Christians also have serious complaints about U.S. President Barack Obama, who they say is not doing enough to protect their rights. Vice President Joe Biden has indeed condemned the murder of the Christians in Baghdad and has called upon the new Iraqi government to protect its minorities, but beyond that it does not appear the administration is able to do anything to stop the attacks.
Representatives of the Iraqi Christian community fear that this Christmas will not only be a memorial for the 58 killed in the Baghdad church, but will also mark the loss of the country's Christian minority as a whole. Nassir Sharhoom, 47, who fled last month to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, told The New York Times: "It's exactly what happened to the Jews. They want us all to go." In the meantime, it appears that "they" are on the way to achieving their goal.