“We waited for three years,” says Merna, a young Christian woman in the Christmas season of 2017. “This year Christmas will be very different because we have returned to our town [Qaraqosh]. Being able to go to church and seeing that there are people who are celebrating Christmas is something great.” The town in the Nineveh Plain is coming to life again after being liberated from ISIS. By 2017, an estimated 20,000 people have already returned to this town that had the biggest population of Christians before the crisis with ISIS began in 2014.

Christmas will be extra special this year in the Nineveh Plain. “All Christians have their houses decorated,” says Shlema,* director of an Open Doors local partner organization in Iraq. “Even during their displacement, they would put decorations in their [temporary housing].” Special meals are usually prepared for December 25, where entire families gather together after church. On that day, people dress in their new clothes they bought for the occasion. For Christians, December 25 and 26 are official holidays in Iraq. Sometimes the Kurdish and Iraqi government decide to make December 25 an official holiday for all citizens.

Christmas is an important day for all denominations – the Chaldeans (the largest group), the Catholics as well as Protestants (mostly Anglican and Reformed).

Historical churches make up 95% of all churches in Iraq, most of these belonging to the Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Catholic or Assyrian Church of the East. There is also an Armenian church in Iraq. The first Evangelical church in the Middle East was established more than 100 years ago in the city of Nineveh (Mosul) and many different Evangelical churches were built in Baghdad and Basra too.

Christmas 2018 will be a truly special time for Christians in Iraq, even as our brothers and sisters mourn what is lost. Despite the brutality of attacks on Christians by ISIS, many believers had returned, ready to begin the hard work of rebuilding their homes and churches—and the continued work of following Jesus.

Our Gifts of Hope are delivering hope to believers living in these difficult circumstances. Join us in sending them hope and assurance that they are not alone!