Between ISIS and Assad, Mideast Christians Celebrate Christmas Under War's Shadow

For first time in years, Christmas tree lights up in Syria's Aleppo. Meanwhile, Iraqi Christians in heightened state of fear after attacks on Christian-owned shops.

An Iraqi dressed in a Santa Claus outfit distributes gifts to impoverished children outside in Najaf, Iraqi, December 25, 2016.
HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP

Between ISIS-linked attacks in Iraq, and Russian-backed regime forces in Syria, Christians in the region marked Christmas under the heavy shadow of conflict. Nonetheless, both communities found cause for optimism.

Christians in Aleppo celebrated under a giant Christmas tree lit up for the first time in five years, hailing what many described as the return of peace to a city that came back under full government control last week.

The fall of rebel-held east Aleppo was the biggest victory of Syria's nearly six-year-old civil war for supporters of President Bashar Assad, and many in pro-government parts of the city have been jubilant.

However, the rebel defeat has also brought severe hardship on civilians who fled from insurgent-held areas, thousands of whom have been forced to camp in wilderness under the snow. Aid groups say many are in peril and children have died from exposure to severe winter weather.

In the war ravaged St. Elias Cathedral located on what was long the frontline in Aleppo's historic Old City, priests prayed for peace at the first Christmas Eve Mass for five years, attended by dozens of worshippers, including some Russian officers.

Christian clerics lead a mass at the Saint Elias Cathedral in Aleppo's Old City on December 25, 2016.
GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP

"The festive atmosphere is great. It's a new birth for Jesus Christ and a new birth for the city of Aleppo," said George Bakhash, a Christian community leader.

He said the numbers attending mass across the city had surged, now that worshippers no longer feared missiles from rebel-held areas.

Many Syrian Christians supported the government in the civil war, viewing Assad, a member of a Shi'ite-derived minority sect, as a protector against rebel fighters mainly drawn from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

In the comparatively undamaged parts of the city that had long been held by the government, restaurants were thronged by Christians late into the night.

Hundreds of people danced and celebrated in the Azizya neighborhood, where the public Christmas tree had gone unlit since rebels took the eastern half of the city in 2012. Giant posters depicted Assad and his Christian ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In live footage shown on state television, a woman identified as the mother of slain Syrian soldier carried her son's picture alongside an image of the Virgin Mary.

"I am sure his soul is in peace now because Aleppo has been liberated," she said.

Although some Christians stayed on the sidelines of the civil war, many saw the rise of Islamic State and other Sunni Muslim insurgent groups as a threat to the very existence of their communities, some as old as the bible. The Christian population of Aleppo has shrunk since the start of the conflict to around 50,000 from 250,000 according to Bakhash.

Tensions in Iraq

In Iraq, Christians celebrated Christmas in churches decorated for the holiday. But many say they still live in fear, and do not feel the authorities protect them adequately.

Two shops next door to each other were riddled with bullet holes and spattered with blood after gunmen opened fire late on Friday in Baghdad's Ghadeer neighborhood. Police and medical sources said three people were killed and four wounded.

 An Iraqi odontology student dressed in a Santa Claus outfit distribute gifts to impoverished children outside their shanty home in the Iraqi holy Shiite city of Najaf on December 25, 2016
HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP

Local activists gave a higher death toll. Rayan al-Kildani, commander of Babiliyon Brigades, a group of Christian volunteers formed to fight Islamic State militants, said eight Christians and one member of the Yazidi sect had been killed in the attack.

"What a bloody gift they gave us for Christmas," Joseph Warda, a Christian human rights activist, told Reuters.

Maria Polos, a retired schoolteacher in the district where the attack took place, said she and other Christians were afraid to celebrate the holiday in public.

"We fear getting killed like those in the alcohol shops," she said. "We feel we're aliens in this country."

The sale of alcohol is generally shunned among Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, and Christian-run shops that sell it were frequently targeted by militants from both Muslim sects during Iraq's years of sectarian civil war.

This year, government forces have been pushing fighters from the militant group Islamic State out of parts of northern Iraq where it had banned the practice of any religion apart from Sunni Islam.

Areas once held by the group have seen their first Christmas services since 2013, and many Christians there have sounded more hopeful than they have for years about the fate of communities that date back to biblical times.

Although the identities of the attackers who struck the liquor store were not known, the area is predominantly Shi'ite and Shi'ite groups have firm control of security.

Warda, the human rights activist, said militants from any sect that attacked civilians in the name of religion were "no better than Islamic State".

Vian Dakhil, a lawmaker from the ancient Yazidi sect, whose members were targeted in northern Iraq by Islamic State for what Western countries described as genocide, also said one Yazidi and eight Christians were killed in the Baghdad attacks.

"The criminals should be brought to justice as soon as possible so that their punishment serves as an example to those who dare kill civilians in the name of religion," Dakhil said on her Twitter page.