Baghdad (AsiaNews) - Christmas represents "a moment of celebration and sharing for the entire country." One can glimpse "little signs of hope" for the Christian community, which still today is victim of "suffering and discrimination." The government seems to be promoting events helpful for spreading understanding of the celebration among non-Christians as well, like on last Saturday, December 20, in a public park in the eastern section of Baghdad. But there remains the fear that these initiatives are more a "superficial solidarity" which does not restore "true dignity" to the community, in regard to which persecution and discrimination - including at the political level - remain a relevant problem. These are the comments to AsiaNews from some of the Iraqi bishops on the eve of the Christmas celebrations.
"The interior ministry organized a celebration," says Louis Sako, archbishop of Kirkuk, "the aim of which was to reward those who have struggled for interreligious dialogue and have carried forward initiatives of peace. It is a gesture of solidarity toward Christians, and an invitation to return to Iraq." The celebration, held on Saturday in the capital, the first public event connected to Christmas, saw the participation of a great number of children (in the photo) accompanied by their families. The celebration was enriched by a tree decorated with Christmas themes, a Santa Claus mingling among the crowd, images of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary, and the flag of Iraq to unite all of the citizens. "Today, all Iraqis are Christians," said Major Abdul Karim Khalaf, spokesman of the interior ministry. "The celebration was a gesture of friendship for Christians," continues Archbishop Sako, "and a symbolic condemnation of the violence that our community has had to endure over the past five years."
Positive judgments are also being expressed by Shlemon Warduni, the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, according to whom this is an "encouraging first step," while he reiterates that what matters is "concrete action, beginning with respect for the rights of Christians, which are too often violated." "The government is inviting the exiles to return," continues Bishop Warduni, "and this is good. But there are still many unresolved issues: the cancellation of article 50 of the electoral law, which undermines the rights of minorities; the lack of employment opportunities for Christians, who still today face discrimination in the workplace. Another case of the violation of rights concerns the children of parents who convert to Islam: they automatically become Muslim, even if only one of the two embraces the Islamic faith."
Rabban Al Qas, bishop of Ammadiya and Erbil, speaks of a "climate of celebration" among the faithful of his diocese, and announces the live broadcast of the Christmas Mass on Kurdish television: "a message of peace," the bishop says, "for the entire community, with special concern for those who are still suffering." The prelate is also talking about the faithful of Mosul, who "suffer on account of their faith: the Masses in the diocese will be celebrated only during the daytime, out of fear of attacks on the part of the fundamentalists."
Fear, suffering, violence, and persecution are the offspring of five years of war, the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the spiral of violence that has gripped the country. For the bishops, it may have been "easier to celebrate" in the era of the dictator, but even in the midst of atrocious suffering, "the hope of the Christian message that is revealed in a Child has an even stronger value today." "During Saddam's time, there were many more restrictions on freedom," says Archbishop Sako, "and this tight control by the government guaranteed greater security for the Christian community during the celebrations. But today, Christmas is taking on greater significance, because it also represents a rite of conversion. Today, expectation for change is alive." The archbishop of Kirkuk is referring to a visit on the part of "Arab, Turkmen, and Kurdish delegations, in order to bring their wishes to the Christian community" and announces greater security measures provided by the police. "Although amid so many persecutions," the prelate concludes, "today we can feel a sense of greater solidarity. It is a slow journey, but new aspects can be glimpsed."
From the capital, Bishop Warduni says that "it is difficult to compare the past to the present." "It may be that before," says the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, "there was greater freedom for Christians, who were able to celebrate midnight Mass, and families were able to remain in the streets until two or three o'clock in the morning, exchanging Christmas wishes." He says that he hopes the country can regain its peace and stability, looking to "that Child who becomes a living presence in our midst."
Greater freedom of thought, finally, is being stressed by Bishop Rabban al Qas, and witnessed to by the presence of 33 private television channels, something that would have been "unthinkable during the regime." "Of course," the prelate denounces, "is just as evident that there is greater suffering for the Christian community, but I am optimistic, because by continuing on this path we will reach democracy and freedom."
In his message to the faithful, the bishop of Ammadiya and Erbil recalls that "Christmas is not only the commemoration of a past event," but is a "reality present and living in our midst." "We must build a new world," the bishop concludes, "all of us together, Kurds, Arabs, and Christians: this holiday goes beyond presents and the exchange of gifts; it must be an occasion of rebirth for all."