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Iraqi Christians call off Christmas

KIRKUK, Iraq — No decorations, no midnight Mass. Even an appearance by Santa Claus has been nixed after Iraq's Christian leaders called off Christmas celebrations amid new al-Qaida threats on the tiny community still terrified from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church.

Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since the assault on Our Lady of Salvation Church as its Catholic congregation was celebrating Sunday Mass. Sixty-eight people were killed. Days later Islamic insurgents bombed Christian homes and neighborhoods across the capital.

On Tuesday, al-Qaida insurgents threatened more attacks on Iraq's beleaguered Christians, many of whom have fled their homes or the country since the church attack. A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public celebrations of Christmas out of concern for their lives and as a show of mourning for the victims.

"Nobody can ignore the threats of al-Qaida against Iraqi Christians," said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. "We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak."

Church officials in Baghdad, as well as in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and the southern city of Basra, said they will not put up Christmas decorations or celebrate midnight Mass. They urged worshippers not to decorate their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus was called off.

"It's to avoid any attacks, but also to show that people are sad, not happy," said Younadim Kanna, a Christian lawmaker from Baghdad.

The latest threats were posted late Tuesday by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, on a website frequented by Islamic extremists.

In Baghdad's Karradah neighborhood, where many of the city's remaining Christians live, churches were guarded by security forces Wednesday and surrounded by razor wire. Shop owners said few people were buying the Christmas trees and Santa Claus toys that are on sale.

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