(Photo: AP Images / Hadi Mizban)
Churches throughout Iraq are canceling Christmas services after receiving threats from an al-Qaida affiliate.
Fearing that Christians will be targeted, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Monsignor Louis Sarko of Kirkuk told Agence France-Presse that they will not be celebrating the "feast of Christmas" and will be holding masses in the morning, rather than in the evening.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni Islamic insurgent groups that include al-Qaida, issued a warning late Tuesday, threatening more attacks against the Christian minority unless Egypt's Coptic Church releases two women converts to Islam. The group claims the women are being held against their will but the church has denied the allegations.
The same threat was made just before armed militants stormed a church in Baghdad during Sunday mass and killed at least 58 people. After the Oct. 31 attack – reported to have been the deadliest against Iraqi Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003 – ISI declared that all Christians would be targets.
Since the church attack, Christians have been targeted in their homes and businesses.
In Baghdad, only one church is scheduled to celebrate Christmas fully, according to The Daily Telegraph.
"We love Christmas but this year it feels bitter," Thaer said, according to the Telegraph. "You sit somewhere and you're afraid; you go shopping and you're afraid; you go for a walk and you're afraid. Iraq has become a hell."
Despite the persecution against the Christian population, which has shrunk from around 1.2 million to less than half, by some estimates, and ongoing threats, worshippers in the war-torn country continue to remain strong in their faith.
"I am reading the Bible in a different way than I ever read it before. Now I can understand Paul when he said ‘I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.’ (Acts 20:23-24)," said Martha, an Iraqi mother, who suffered through the Oct. 31 attack.
"Now I can feel what Paul said and what was in his heart and in his emotions," she wrote in a letter addressed to Open Doors, a persecution watchdog.
In hopes of celebrating Christmas, Martha has appealed to the public for prayers.
"Christmas is coming, but peace does not exist in Iraq. Pray for us that we can have a peaceful Christmas. God is so good, and I love Him so much. Please pray for me…" she said.
In a show of support to their brethren in Iraq, Open Doors delivered approximately 1,750 prayer and encouragement notes to Baghdad last week. The persecution watchdog has also called on the U.S. and the rest of the international community to recognize the "extermination" attempt in Iraq and to help put a stop to it.