Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards men. Let it begin in Iraq
Thousands of Iraqi Christians picked their way through checkpoints and along dusty streets lined with concrete blast walls, packing churches in Baghdad on Tuesday for Christmas Mass...
"We did not celebrate last year, but this year we have security and we feel better," said Rasha Ghaban, one of many women at the small Church of the Holy Family in Karradah, a mainly Shiite district in downtown Baghdad where many Christians live. "We hope our future will be better, God willing."
Families streamed into the church's courtyard, wrapped in heavy winter jackets to protect them from the early morning chill. Young children with neatly combed hair held their parents' hands, and women stopped by the front door to pick through a basket of small lacy headscarves, placing them over their hair before walking in...
The pews were almost full — women toward the back and on the right side of the church, the men on the left — and still more people streamed in. Outside, police armed with automatic rifles manned a checkpoint at the corner of the narrow street, searching every passing car for possible bombs.
Christians have often been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists in Iraq, forcing tens of thousands to flee. Many of those who stayed were isolated in neighborhoods protected by barricades and checkpoints. Less than 3% of Iraq's 26 million people are Christians — the majority Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics.
A coordinated bombing campaign in 2004 targeted churches in the Iraqi capital, and anti-Christian violence also flared last September after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be against Islam.
But this year, with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha coming just before Christmas, Iraq has been living through some of the most peaceful moments since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Catholic Church and Iraq's first cardinal, celebrated Mass before about 2,000 people in the Mar Eliya Church the eastern New Baghdad neighborhood of the capital.
"Iraq is a bouquet of flowers of different colors, each color represents a religion or ethnicity but all of them have the same scent," the 80-year-old Delly told the congregation.
Muslim clerics — both Sunni and Shiite — also attended the service in a sign of unity.
The 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army (IA) Division invited Coalition forces to a Christmas Party at an Assyrian Christian School in Kirkuk, Dec. 15.
With Christians representing approximately two percent of the population here, according to military officials, the theme of this year’s celebration was ‘Ethnic and Religious Diversity’.
“Kirkuk is a good place to be for Christians … a place where all ethnic groups, Arab, Kurd, Turkman and Christian, are living in peace,” said the priest of the Christian school. He also ministers to 2-4 IA Soldiers who operate from Iraqi Army Base K-1 in Kirkuk.
Both IA and Coalition Soldiers, with the 2414 Logistics Transition Team (LTT) at K-1, came armed with presents, which they passed out to the children who were clothed in various ethnic dress to represent the cultures that are striving to bring back some semblance of normality to this ethnically diverse area of northeastern Iraq.
“We want to live and work with our neighbors in harmony … as Iraqis,” Maj. Zyad Junaid Omar, 2-4 IA Civil Affairs (CA) officer, said. Zyad, whose father is an Arab and mother a Turkman, said that he invites Coalition Soldiers along to show Iraqis that, “Americans are good people that want to help.” He also wanted the Iraqi public to see how well the IA and Coalition work together.
“Maj. Zyad is a patriot in the true sense,” said Lt. Col. Greg Markert, 2414 LTT. “He wants to make a difference. He is not concerned about the ethnic background of these children. He’s concerned about Iraq’s future … which they represent.”
The gifts the Soldiers handed out were contributed by employers, friends and family of Pennsylvania Guardsmen Sgt. 1st Class Ken “Gunny” Ganiszewski, 2414 LTT, and Markert, both of Philadelphia. “What started out as a suggestion snowballed into 200 packages full of toys, candy, blankets … the response has been tremendous,” said the former Marine.
This was just one of the several ongoing civil affairs programs run by the 2-4 IA’s CA team.