BAGHDAD, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Iraq's Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas amid fear caused by the political vacuum and lack of security nine months after U.S. and British forces took over the Arab country.
Amid growing fears of political differences and sectarian divisions, new Christian Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Dalleh urged Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities to reaffirm allegiance to a united and single Iraq.
Christianity is the second religion in Iraq after Islam, making up 5 percent of the 26-million population. Most live in cities such as Baghdad, Mosul in the north, and Basra in the south, and belong mainly to the Assyrian, Chaldean and Armenian branches.
This year, however, few shops are displaying Christmas trees and other decorations.
"Christian Iraqis are like their compatriots from other religions, worried by the dangers facing their country and have also new and particular fears," a prominent Iraqi Christian told United Press International on condition of anonymity.
He said, however, that Christians were alarmed by the new trend of Muslim religious extremism in Iraq though he acknowledged it was not widespread.
"Extremism is a source of worry and anxiety as much as chaos and the collapse of security, not to mention reports about the infiltration of terrorists from outside and the increase in crime rates... All these facts cause fears and concerns for the Christians in Iraq," the source said.
He said growing divisions were drawing Sunnis and Shiites apart, and the rise of extremist movements who advocate violence to impose their ideology "exacerbated the fears of Christians and restricted their freedom of movement and action."
Iraqi Christians also complain they were not justly represented in the U.S.-backed Iraq Governing Council. Christians are represented in the Iraq council by Yundam Kana Skartir, the delegate of the Democratic Assyrian Movement, and in the temporary government by Transportation Minister Bahnam Ziya Boulos.
They took their grievances to U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer and held a congress in early October and set up an independent church council to air their opinions.
Last week, Dalleh took the occasion of his appointment at the head of the Chaldean church to urge all Iraqis to renew their allegiance to a united Iraq.
"All of Iraq is our nation from north to south...We belong to a single family... The family of Iraqis," he said at a service in St. Joseph Church in central Baghdad.
The service was attended by politicians and Sunni and Shiite representatives.
Dalleh said he was taking over the leadership of the Iraqi church at a "very exceptional time of Iraq's history," stressing the need to preach unity among all religions.
Christian political parties welcomed Dalleh's appointment, urging him to play a leading role in closing the ranks of Iraqis "in order to achieve unity and activate Christian presence within the natural and beautiful mosaic of Iraqi society."
A statement by the Democratic Assyrian Movement underscored the Christian community's commitment to "serve ... (the) Iraqi people and back (the) ... church in building bridges and mending fences between all Iraqi groups and factions."
The Oriental Chaldean Church is based in Baghdad but follows the directives of the Vatican. Its affiliates in Iraq are estimated at almost a million, and it has followers in other Middle Eastern countries including Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iran.