This morning, at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, the mood was somber. I counted three worshippers. One was a girl, a tiny brunette of no more than 10 years old, who walked to the front of the church clutching her school report card. She knelt at the altar in front of a picture of her cousin, who was inside the church during evening mass on Oct. 31, when terrorists stormed the building and took the worshipers hostage before detonating suicide vests. Dozens were killed, including the girl's cousin.
The attack, and a smattering of others in recent weeks against Iraq's vanishing Christian community, have led to a feeling of siege this Christmas. Human rights groups say that Christians have been targeted with rocket attacks and received threats by mail and text message. On Wednesday, wire services reported that Christians in three Iraqi cities had decided to cancel Christmas observances after receiving threats.
The Chaldean Catholic archbishop in the northern city of Kirkuk told AFP that he and 10 other Christian leaders received warnings from the Islamic State of Iraq - a terrorist group linked to al Qaeda in Iraq, which claimed responsibility for the Baghdad attack - that persuaded him to cancel the traditional Christmas feast. Only masses will be held, and only in the morning, Monsignor Louis Sako said.
In Mosul and Basra, two other Baghdad cities that are home to members of the dwindling Christian community - which stands at about 500,000 now, down from more than 1 million in the Saddam Hussein era - Christian leaders have told their flock not to put up Christmas decorations.
In Baghdad, Christian leaders said they planned to go ahead with subdued Christmas commemorations - amid intense security precautions. Concrete blast walls now surround Our Lady of Salvation church, put up several days ago, a security guard said. A church in the capital's Zafaraniyeh neighborhood has done the same. Outside another church I visited this morning, tangles of barbed wire were scattered across the road.
Human rights groups have called on the new Iraqi government to do more to protect its Christian community. Violence in Iraq this year was at its lowest since 2003, but it remains a dangerous place for minorities. Dozens of Christian families have fled Iraqi cities this fall for the relative safety of the northern Kurdistan region and for neighboring Syria and Jordan.
For them, and for their thousands of brethren remaining in Iraq, it will be a Christmas tinged with indescribable sadness.