BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Normally on Christmas Eve, Ban Zaki puts on festive clothes and takes her family to Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church for lively holiday celebrations.
Not this year.
Dressed in black and fighting back tears, she has brought her three children to the church to honour her late husband, who was killed along with 51 others when Iraqi forces stormed it after militants took hostages during Sunday mass on Oct 31.
“He died on this spot,” 49-year-old Zaki said, pointing to the marble floor of the Catholic church.
“This year, there will be no festivities, no celebrations. The images of the attack and how they killed my husband here in this place are still in front of my eyes. Those were four hours I won’t forget for the rest of my life,” she said.
The attack triggered a fresh exodus of Christians from some Iraqi cities amid renewed fears that Sunni Islamist militants were trying to drive Christians out of their homeland.
The U.N. refugee agency said last week that some 1,000 Christian families, roughly 6,000 people, had fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas.
Iraq’s Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now believed to be about 850,000 out of a population estimated at 30 million.
In its latest threat, the Islamic State of Iraq, the local affiliate of al Qaeda, said this week that Iraqi Christians risked further attacks unless they pressured the Christian church in Egypt to release a group of people it said the church was holding after they had converted to Islam.
The group also warned Iraqi Christians against proselytising and fraternising with occupation forces.
Fearing further bloodshed, several church leaders in Iraq have urged Christians to keep Christmas low-key and limit celebrations to prayers and mass.
On Christmas Eve, the only sign of the holiday at downtown churches was a group of children rehearsing carols at Our Lady of Salvation. Their parents stood nearby, watching them anxiously.
The threat of fresh attacks has led Iraqi security forces to erect high blast walls topped with barbed wire around Our Lady of Salvation and several other churches in Baghdad.
“These are a part of new security measures for the churches in Baghdad,” said fire-fighter Abed Aswad Mohammed, standing beside his fire truck at the Sacred Heart Church in the Karrada district in Baghdad.
For some parishioners, the protective walls are a depressing reminder of the dangers they face.
“I swear I burst into tears when I saw it for the first time,” said Khalid Yousif, a worshipper who came to Our Lady of Salvation with his two children.
“Look at it. It doesn’t look like a church. It looks like a fortress or a prison.”
He gestured at the church walls which still bear the marks of the attack. Beneath decorations of elegant Arabic calligraphy, the walls are riddled with bullet holes and in some places speckled with blood. All the windows are shattered.
On a green carpet before the altar, worshippers have placed pictures of the two priests and dozens of others killed in attack. Bouquets, wreaths and sprays of flowers adorn the spot.
Zaki, who was shot in the abdomen during the October 31 attack, said she was planning to leave Iraq now, despite calls from religious leaders to keep the faith and stay.
“I was here on this ground bleeding,” she said, her voice breaking. “My husband was there, two or three meters a way from me, but I couldn’t reach him. I was afraid that if I move, they will kill me or my children, whom I held in a tight embrace.”
“I am not ready to make any more sacrifices,” Zaki said. “This is enough.”
Writing by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Caroline Drees/Maria Golovnina