Iraqi Christians mark safer Christmas in Kurdistan
By Namo Abdulla
AINKAWA, Iraq (Reuters) - Ammar Ablahad fled Baghdad to the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan just last week, determined to celebrate Christmas with his wife and baby without fear of attack.
"There's a 100 percent difference," said Ablahad, 32, a civil engineer who joined thousands of other Iraqi Christians fleeing to the safer north after deadly attacks and persistent militant threats against a dwindling Christian population.
In the worst recent attack, 52 people died at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church on October 31 when security forces stormed the church after militants took hostages during Sunday mass.
Pope Benedict said in his annual Christmas message that he hoped the holiday would bring consolation to Christians in Iraq and all the Middle East, where the Vatican fears that violence such as the October attack is fuelling a Christian exodus.
Fearing further bloodshed, several church leaders in cities such as Baghdad -- which is still plagued by almost daily attacks -- have urged Christians to keep Christmas low-key this year and limit celebrations to prayers and mass.
The threat of fresh violence has led Iraqi security forces to erect high blast walls topped with barbed wire around several churches in Baghdad. Holiday decorations were noticeably absent.
But about 300 km (190 miles) further north, in Ainkawa and other Kurdish towns, the mood is festive. Churches are decked out with fluorescent lights and holiday banners, and Christmas music blares out in the streets.
Kurdistan has been an oasis of relative calm in Iraq since 1991, when the area became a semi-autonomous enclave under Western protection. The region has earned the reputation of being a safe haven in an otherwise dangerous country. Continued...