A day earlier on Christmas Eve, less than 100 people gathered at the Sacred Church of Jesus located near Our Lady of Salvation. The church Christmas tree was decorated with paper stars that each bear a photo of a Christian killed during the October siege.
“Yes, we are threatened, but we will not stop praying,” said the Rev. Meyassr al-Qaspotros during the Christmas Eve service at Sacred Church of Jesus, according to the New York Times. “Be careful not to hate the ones killing us because they know not what they are doing. God forgive them.”
Many churches throughout Iraq cancelled their Christmas Eve as well as Christmas services for fear of members being attacked by Islamic militants. Some churches cancelled service times, such as midnight or early morning, when travel would make members more vulnerable to being targeted.
The particularly somber Christmas in Iraq this year is due to the unprecedented level of attacks against the country’s tiny Assyrian Christian community. Following the Oct. 31 massacre, a series of bomb explosions in Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad and Mosul killed several more believers. Extremists have also in recent months broken into the homes of Christians and murder them in their living room.
On Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni Islamic insurgent groups that include al-Qaida, issued a warning threatening more attacks against 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 Islamic State of Iraq is the same group that claimed responsibility for the Oct. 31 and Nov. 10 attacks against Iraqi Christians.
Since the October massacre, at least 1,000 Christian families have fled Baghdad for northern Iraq or to the nearby countries of Jordan, Syria and Turkey. It is unclear how many Christians exactly still remain in Iraq, but some estimates put the number at about 500,000. This figure is far below the estimated 1.4 million believers that lived in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.