Christmas Celebrations Canceled in Iraq After Deaths of 400 Anti-Government Protesters as Christians Hope to Lead Nation to Jonah-Like Repentance

Pastor Ara Badalian leads members of National Baptist Church in prayer at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Image: Courtesy of National Baptist Church

Distributing food to protesters with 40 fellow church members under the Jumariyah bridge near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Ara Badalian made a poignant observation.

“This movement is a flood, occupying the hearts of the youth and the poor, without any religious discrimination,” the pastor of National Baptist Church recalled to CT. “It has broken down all the walls that divided Iraqis.”

It is at the bridges—about a dozen span the Tigris River, which bifurcates the Iraqi capital—where most violence has taken place. The protest movement, which began in October, has resulted in more than 400 deaths, around a dozen of them security personnel. Over 17,000 people have been injured.

In response, the Chaldean Catholic Church decided last week to refrain from holding public celebrations of Christmas, trading tree decorations and holiday receptions for prayers of intercession.

“Instead of bringing hope and prosperity, the current government structure has brought continued corruption and despair,” Bashar Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, told the United Nations Security Council last week.

“[Iraqi youth] have made it clear that they want Iraq … to be a place where all can live together as equal citizens in a country of legitimate pluralism and respect for all.”

Protesters have demanded the dissolution of parliament, widespread government reforms, and amendment of the sectarian-based 2005 constitution.

Ratified following the United States-led 2003 Iraq War, the current constitution gives the Middle East nation’s Shiite majority (55% of the population) the leading position of prime minister, as well as the influential interior and foreign ministries.

The Sunni minority (40%) receive the speaker of parliament and the defense ministry. The Kurds, who comprise only a third of the Sunni population but are concentrated in their own autonomous northern region, receive the presidency and finance ministry.

Islam is established as the religion of the state and the foundational source of legislation. Christians are among three religious minorities guaranteed religious freedom, though the constitution protects the Islamic identity of the majority.

While the protests have been cross-sectarian in Baghdad, they’ve paradoxically been strongest in the nine Shiite provinces in southern Iraq.

“People don’t want foreign interference from anywhere, and especially Iran,” said Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society in Iraq. “Minorities are waiting to see the outcome, but these protests may be the solution to give them their rights and let them live in peace.”

Open Doors ranks Iraq No. 13 on its list of countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.

Religious minorities have seen their share of the population shrink from eight to five percent since the American invasion, according to the US Institute for Peace (USIP). Yazidis are now the largest, with between 600,000 and 750,000 adherents. Christians were between 800,000 and 1,250,000 before the war, but have now dwindled to less than 250,000. Evangelicals number about 3,000.

Despite their small numbers, Eskrya has seen all denominations participating in the protests. Badalian said they are doing so as citizens, not as Christians.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jayson Casper