Christmas in Iraq: ‘Jesus was a refugee’
An Iraqi pastor gives new perspective on the Christmas story.
Editor’s note: Father Daniel Alkhory Temathius, 26, serves with the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East in Erbil, Iraq. Father Daniel studied in Baghdad through 10th grade, when his family fled persecution. They escaped to Ankawa, the Christian section of Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Daniel studied biology, planning to become a doctor, but in explaining his faith to his Muslim classmates, he discovered a call to the priesthood.
When Mosul fell in August 2014, thousands of Iraqis fled to Erbil, including more than 1,600 Christians who arrived overnight at Father Daniel’s church in Ankawa. Today, 700 internally displaced Iraqi Christians live in trailers on what used to be the church’s grassy lawn. Father Daniel is both priest and provider for the displaced families. He partners with World Vision to see that they have food, water, bathrooms, laundry facilities, and jobs. Based on his work, he shared some reflections.
Every time I look into the eyes of an Iraqi child from Mosul — a child displaced by war — I see the baby Jesus. These children and their families face the same challenges as Mary and Joseph did so long ago. The Christmas story of yesterday is the story of the displaced Christians of Iraq today.
Jesus was born in a time when Jerusalem was under Roman occupation. It wasn’t a peaceful time. For the displaced Iraqi Christians, the situation is the same — they are living in nonstop wars.
From the time of his birth, Jesus was a refugee. In the Christmas story the Christ child is displaced twice, the first time from his Father’s heavenly house and then again from his home in Nazareth. Jesus lived in the middle of danger, being rejected by an innkeeper and running for his life in a place of strangers.
Like Jesus, the children of Iraq have no decent place to live. It’s so hard when a child has been living in his own house, in his own room, with paintings on the wall, his own toys, with a good bed, and suddenly his life is changed upside down. Now instead of having his own room, he has no place to lay his head — just like Jesus.
A Cold Cave
Jesus was born among the animals in a cold cave.
He was warmed by the breath of animals and the love of his parents. The displaced children of Iraq are exposed to the heat of the sun during the summer, and the chill and heavy rain during winter. They live with their families in tents or caravans without electricity.
But they are comforted by their parents by showing them love and making them feel that they are in a safe place, just like Mary and Joseph did.
These are holy families.
Today, a new generation of Christians is born to us. They live among the fights and conflicts but still have the will to live happy lives with pure faith, rejecting evil and being creative despite the difficult conditions. They take their pain to the Great Healer who changes their pain into a cross with flowers. This cross becomes their way to go back to their beloved homelands, just like the cross became the way of Jesus to go back to his Father’s glory, becoming victorious over death.
Peace is very hard currency nowadays because of conflict and division. Humans are running to destroy the creation of God day after day, and the result is millions of victims of displacement around the world. But King Jesus is coming to prevail with his light of peace over the shadow of wars.
I consider the Christmas story one of the stories that gives strength and hope for the displaced people, because while it consists of so many difficulties, there was a solution for each problem. This story is full of deep meanings, and it talks directly to all the people, rich and poor, happy and sad, with a powerful message of hope and unity.
Christmas is not about the tree, the decorations, buying new clothes, special dinners, and gifts. It is about two things.
For people, the story serves to sow hope in the hearts of those who’ve lost hope. For churches, it is intended to help them unite and look after the baby Jesus and to see him on the face of their people who are suffering.
Through this, all the churches, whether they be in Mosul or Minneapolis, can live together in one cave, forgetting their differences and gathering around the true source of strength and unity — Jesus, the child of Christmas.