Faith

Iraqi Christians Celebrate Christmas Amid Sorrow and Homesickness

Man helps a boy to put some Christmas lights in a camp for Christians displaced by Islamic State militants in Irbil, Iraq. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Christmas is such a wonderful and holy time for believers in Jesus. Here in the West, we have the privilege of celebrating with family and friends, worshiping at candlelight services, enjoying rich food, and singing songs that honor the newborn King.

Sometimes we forget how easy we have it. We don’t have to live under the constant fear of murderous armies. Most of us will celebrate in warm, inviting homes. For Iraqi Christians, this season brings a bittersweet mix of celebration and sorrow.

Displaced Christians in camps like those at the Ankawa camp will celebrate Christmas with gifts, a nativity scene, and a Christmas tree in the heart of the camp, but one thread runs through their holiday: homesickness. The New York Post tells the story of some of these refugees.

They still can’t go home even though their towns and villages have been wrested back from the militants by Iraqi forces. The towns are too devastated, with no water or electricity. The Christians are also haunted by memories of their flight under cover of darkness to escape the IS onslaught.

“I just want to go home,” said a tearful 80-year-old Victoria Behman Akouma. She was among a handful who briefly stayed behind after IS seized her town of Karamlis in August 2014. “They asked me to convert to Islam, but I told them I will die a Christian and that they can kill me if they want to,” she said.

[…]

For Victoria, the 80-year-old woman from Karamlis, life in a camp for the displaced may well be the final stop in a life defined by tragedy. She lost her husband to a murderous gang of Muslims when she was 24. She has not seen her two children — a daughter in Britain and a son she thinks is in Jordan — in 30 years, she said.

Even pastors like Rev. Khouri Youssef can’t escape the sorrow of not being at home, even as they lead their parishioners in prayers and worship.

“We miss praying in our churches, sitting outside our homes in the summer evenings, tending our gardens and living in our homes,” said Youssef, 73. “We bear the wound in our hearts, but life goes on,” said Youssef, holding an old painting depicting Saint Barbara, Karamlis’ patron saint, who is thought to have lived in the 3rd century.

“We found it buried under the rubble when we returned to the town,” he said.

Liberated believers in areas around Mosul—once a proud enclave of Christians—have returned home to ransacked churches and defaced sanctuaries. The New York Times shared the accounts of some of these Christians who have returned home to commemorate Jesus’ birth amid their own sorrow.

Friends Badrea Gigues and Zarifa Bakoos, both elderly widows, recount their experiences facing the ISIS militants who ransacked their hometown:

“Sometimes we prayed, and sometimes we cried,” said Ms. Gigues, who is blind and largely deaf, in a recent interview after Qaraqosh was liberated and the security forces found her. “We talked about our husbands, our memories, our children, what it was like when we were young.”

The women said Islamic State fighters had forced them to spit on a cross and to stomp on a picture of the Virgin Mary.

“Sorry, Mary, that I did that,” Ms. Bakoos recalled thinking. “Please forgive me.”

Some stand stubborn and firm in relying on their faith:

“They can destroy our houses, our things, but not our souls,” said Huda Khudhur, a nun from Qaraqosh.

Others who have moved away from Mosul fear returning home to worship among the seemingly unending ISIS threat:

“There is no guarantee that we can go back and be safe,” said Haseeb Saleem, 65, a Christian from the Mosul area who left more than two years ago and now lives in the Kurdish city of Erbil, the regional capital.

This Christmas, as you celebrate the birth of Jesus with family and friends, take some time to pray for your Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq. They truly need a miracle to relieve their lives of the terror that has characterized the last few years in that country.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV)