Christmas in an Iraqi refugee camp

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Courtesy of Jerusalem & Middle East Church Association

ERBIL, Iraq (Christian Examiner) – Iraqi Christians gather throughout the day and night this Christmas season at a nativity scene they have set up in a tent at the refugee center they now call home.

Without the luxury of malls or even money to spend, they are concentrating on God's gift rather than the absence of gifts to each other.

"I do not think Father Christmas will come this year," said David, 5 years old, according to a Dec. 18 article in the Catholic Herald. "He does not know where we are living now."

But God does.

Christianity was brought to Iraq within a hundred years of Jesus' time on earth, many scholars say by His disciples Thomas and Thaddeus. The Assyrian people adopted Christianity in the 1st century A.D. and Assyria became the center of Eastern Rite Christianity and Syriac literature from the 1st century AD until the Middle Ages, according to the BBC in a 2008 article.

In 1987, the last Iraqi census counted 1.4 million Christians. Near-continual persecution since then has devastated this faith community. Over the last 12 months, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, nearly 2 million people have been displaced by fighting between the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and armed opposition groups, among which are the Islamic State.

A displaced Iraqi man, who fled from the Islamic State violence in Mosul, poses for the camera with his daughters at Baherka refugee camp in Erbil September 19, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Many of the 99,697 people – mostly Iraqi Christians – now seeking safety in the northern Iraq region of Kurdistan, have put their Christmas focus on the birth of Jesus, which is about the only source of hope in their lives, according to several news reports.

They have little hope of ever returning to their homes, and the thin tents they are staying in provide little protection from the seasonal cold. The cloth bags of foodstuffs they receive ensure subsistence.

The possibility of imminent martyrdom has sharpened the Iraqi Christian refugees' sense of precisely what it means to live and to die for their faith, said Sahar Mansour, a Mosul, Iraq, refugee to the Catholic Herald.

"Iraqi Christians cannot put their life before their faith," Mansour said. "The word 'martyr' literally means 'witness,' and this is what we have dared to be. So if the purpose of being a Christian is to spread the Word, then the highest calling of Christianity is to die for the Word of God. ...

"Christian faith is a fact that is alive and operative, making us people who look for the meaning of their lives ... in spite of all the contradictions that emerge because of life's complexities and problems," Mansour continued. "Faith is a gift from God. Faith is commitment, not a mere point of view. We believe in God as a fact, and we are committed to our faith deeply and out of the core of our existence."

This is why Iraqi Christian refugees spend their time praying, singing and lighting candles at the nativity scene fashioned out of a tent, with statuary borrowed from the church, a child-height wooden fence in front more to mark the site rather than to keep anyone out. Backlit lights illuminate the scene throughout the night, which seem to warm those who stop to ponder, to pray, to feel the warmth of His love.

A displaced Iraqi child, who fled from Islamic State violence in Mosul, helps her family to wash dishes at Baherka refugee camp in Erbil September 19, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

They are safe, for the moment, staying as they are adjacent to the Mazar Mar Eillia Chaldean [Eastern Rite] Catholic Church. Safe from being shot at, at any rate. Food comes from the United Nations, which counts this as a "level three emergency," the highest classification of a humanitarian crisis.

Baptist Global Response is raising money to send blankets. The Franklin Graham organization Samaritan's Purse is sending 60,000 Christmas Child shoeboxes. Other groups are rallying around other specific ministry ideas.Twenty-eight nations have made commitments to take in more than 100,000 people who have been uprooted by the civil war in Syria and the religious persecution in Iraq.