How Life Has Changed for Iraq's Christians

By MIKE GUDGELL, Bureau Chief, ABC News Baghdad

They were shot, kidnapped and chased from their homes. Their churches were bombed and dismantled—often brick by brick. In a country where death and despair are commonplace the Christian population has especially suffered.

They are vulnerable. There is no strong militia or armed force to protect them. Many have fled the country, moved to the more tolerant north or hid in their homes. Most were afraid to worship or even reveal their faith.

This week many Christians in Iraq openly celebrated Christmas for the first time in years. The Iraqi Government declared a holiday—a first in modern times. It’s still a dangerous place for Christians but some see this holiday season as a sign of change in Iraq.

“We hope that the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ this year is a point of change for our country,” said Father Waseem to his congregation at the Our Lady the Savior Cathedral in Baghdad, “let’s pray to our Father to spread love and tranquility.”

There are overwhelming statistics documenting the decrease in violence. Numbers, however, don’t change behavior or have a lasting effect on perception. They don’t tell the whole story. It’s the small things that add up. The military calls it “atmospherics,” the anecdotal experiences that tell us that living here is different.

As journalists we see more than we’d like. It comes with the territory. There are faces of despair and anguish that refuse to fade. When I saw the face of Nadia, a young Iraqi woman who had just attended Father Waseem’s service, it was a very different image from those of the past. You could feel her happiness and relief. “I cannot describe how happy I am this year,” she told us.

This week I flew to southern Iraq in an Army helicopter. The last time I took a similar trip all I could see were abandoned farms, pock marked cratered roads and burning homes or vehicles.

I expected to see the same when we took off from a base near Baghdad. We flew first over the Tigris-Euphrates valley, one of the most fertile areas in the Middle East. This time the sun reflected off neat and orderly fields — irrigated and green. Long lines of hot house growing sheds dotted many farms. As we moved further south I could see shepherds with flocks of sheep and long lines of camels. Trucks and cars moved down the main highway. It was a change, a big change.

Every time I come to Iraq, five or six times a year, I see small differences. The airport used to be part chaos-part order. Human excrement littered the parking garage. The short road to Baghdad was one of the most dangerous pieces of asphalt in the country. The last time I arrived a new terminal had opened. The road has been cleared, the shoulders leveled and cleaned and the median has been groomed and planted with grass.

Further into Baghdad there’s a small turn around just outside the green zone on the way to the ABC News Bureau. The first time I saw this area it was a mud hole. The street and sidewalks were torn up. The blast walls along the edge of the check point were pock marked with shrapnel from a road side bomb that had damaged a Stryker armored vehicle. A year ago I noticed neat stacks of bricks on the sidewalk. The next time, to my surprise, they were still there. I expected they would be stolen. That last trip here they had been laid into the side walk. This time the street was paved.

Perhaps a simple church service, the smile of an Iraqi, neat rows of farms or a paved street mean nothing. Then again, maybe they are everything. It makes me wonder how Nadia will look next Christmas.

Mazin Faiq contributed to this blog.

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