You might think that one place you could avoid Christmas music in mid-December would be Iraq. But driving through Erbil, capital of the country’s Kurdistan Region, on a wet December afternoon, the local Babylon FM radio station has a full festive play list.
That’s because Kurdistan is very different from the rest of the country as many Iraqi Christian refugees have discovered in recent years.
Since the 2003 Iraq war, the Kurdistan Region has offered a safe haven to Christians fleeing religious persecution in
Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and other Southern Iraqi cities. The small suburb of Ainkawa lies on the edge of the region’s capital Erbil and about 90% of its 40,000 strong population is Christian, most of them Assyrians or Chaldeon Catholics.
Ninos Mishu is a priest at the Assyrian Church of the East, St John Baptism Church, in Ainkawa, Erbil.
“We have [on] 24th, Monday, we have a prayer beginning at 7.30 for celebration for coming of Jesus. And at morning 7.30, Tuesday, 25 December, we have a holy mass.”
“We are free here in Kurdistan to use our church here to pray, to make a holy mass. We are so safe here. We are always celebrating our prayers or holy mass. And there is no problems recorded until now. Thanks for God, and for our government that love the Christian people. And our neighbors, the Muslims, they are always giving their greetings for us, in Christmas or Easter.”
Christmas hasn’t always been so easy for Father Ninos. He and many of his congregation came to Kurdistan in 2007 from Dora, a town south of Baghdad, where the situation was very different:
“More different, more different, yeah. We was attacked as Christians. We spent Christmas in big fear. Our church was bombed by the terrorism, so we used for Christmas another church. It was problem to reach to the church, really.”
Not only can Ainkawa’s many churches openly celebrate Christmas, the town has also been a riot of festive decorations for weeks – closer to Santa’s Grotto than the heart of the Middle East.
Elias Abel Achoul is the owner of the events planning company White Pro and has donated this year’s Christmas tree to the neighborhood. An enormous conical structure, it has pride of place on a busy main road at the entrance to the town.
“It’s 39 metres [tall]. It’s the biggest one in the Middle East. We’re trying to do something special. We want to do something for the people to make them happy, to enjoy Christmas. We are late little bit, but today we’re going to finish it. It’s not because Ainkawa is Christian only. We do it for Erbil. We don’t do it for Christian or Muslim – everyone here lives together. They don’t have any problem, I think.”
And while Christians and Muslims do live together in Kurdistan, the government and its security forces are still very vigilant around Christmas time, explains Bassim Hermes, a manager at the local Christian community television station, Ishtar TV, and a native of Ainkawa.
“Our tradition is different from others. When you come to Ainkawa, you cannot feel you are in a part of Iraq. You have lights, trees everywhere. Ainkawa, it’s something special. We have the biggest Christmas tree in the Middle East, so sure there will be some people who don’t like it, but we have the government supporting us. To avoid any sort of problems, anything that might happen that might not be good for those special days, therefore Ainkawa is totally surrounded – the security, the police. The main issue for the government is to let people celebrate, to live their life. They want these people really to enjoy this time, that’s the only reason. If you feel you are safe, if you are secure, that’s freedom.”
And even though Ainkawa’s Chrisitan population does feel free these days, Hermes says it’s important not to take their situation for granted:
“We are Christians living in Iraq. God forbid, if something happens here, if something happens to the Christian people in this region, there’s nowhere else to go, we have to leave the country. It’s our last destination here. God forbid, if something happens, then you cannot find any more Christians here.”