• PERSIAN GULF \ Dec 28, 2005
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    Iraqi worshippers risk their lives to celebrate Christmas in church
Iraqi worshippers risk their lives to celebrate Christmas in church The worst attacks were by insurgents in central and northern Iraq in August last year, when bomb attacks on four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul killed a dozen Christians during Sunday services.

Priests have been threatened and killed, women abused in the street for not wearing veils and three months ago the entire lay leadership of Iraq?s main Anglican church were ambushed and killed.

Despite the fears of insurgent bombings and Islamist intolerance, congregations turned out in greater numbers yesterday than last year. ?We are now back to the numbers of three years ago. People now want to go to church to keep challenging these people, we are defiant,? said Faadi Victor, a lay official at Our Lady of Salvation, a Catholic church that was hit by one of the August 2004 bombs.

The building has now been repaired and the shrine to the Virgin Mary restored, its silver halo gleaming in the bright sunlight as 600 celebrants crammed through the doors.

A few minutes? drive away at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church the instantly recognisable strains of F?iil Douja, Waal Sikhoun? (Silent Night, Holy Night) began the morning service, attended by hundreds.

Here too the stained-glass windows have been newly repaired after being blown out by a mortar shell. After reading from St Matthew?s Gospel, Pastor Ikram Mahanna apologised for the choir?s lower than usual standards, saying that they had been unable to assemble for practice ?because of the very difficult situation?.

He congratulated Christian political candidates in the recent elections ? ?I hope that they will lead the country to democracy? ? before announcing that the New Year?s Eve midnight service ? like that on December 24 ? would have to be held before 7pm for safety reasons. ?We will extinguish the candles and imagine it is midnight,? he said.

Although many shy away from criticism of their Muslim countrymen, fear is close to the surface. Father Haritounian, a priest from Basra, told how he had been driven out of the town by death threats from Muslim fanatics. The final ultimatum had been delivered, he said, by men wearing police uniforms who arrived at his church in a police car 18 months ago. ?They read from a note which said, ?Either leave Basra or you will be killed. You have only one week?,? he told The Times. ?They said, ?We have already warned you and you did not respond. If you do not go now your blood is on your hands.?

He believes that he provoked the fundamentalists by visiting Basra schools to follow up complaints from Christian children that they were being forced to read the Koran. ?Despite the fact that there are British troops there, that doesn?t stop the assassinations and the oppression in Basra,? he said.