By NAMO ABDULLA - Reuters
AINKAWA, Iraq: Ammar Ablahad fled Baghdad to the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan just last week, determined to celebrate Christmas with his wife and baby without fear of attack.
"There's a 100 percent difference," said Ablahad, 32, a civil engineer who joined thousands of other Iraqi Christians fleeing to the safer north after deadly attacks and persistent militant threats against a dwindling Christian population.
In the worst recent attack, 52 people died at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church on October 31 when security forces stormed the church after militants took hostages during Sunday mass.
Pope Benedict said in his annual Christmas message that he hoped the holiday would bring consolation to Christians in Iraq and all the Middle East, where the Vatican fears that violence such as the October attack is fuelling a Christian exodus.
Fearing further bloodshed, several church leaders in cities such as Baghdad -- which is still plagued by almost daily attacks -- have urged Christians to keep Christmas low-key this year and limit celebrations to prayers and mass.
The threat of fresh violence has led Iraqi security forces to erect high blast walls topped with barbed wire around several churches in Baghdad. Holiday decorations were noticeably absent.
But about 300 km (190 miles) further north, in Ainkawa and other Kurdish towns, the mood is festive. Churches are decked out with fluorescent lights and holiday banners, and Christmas music blares out in the streets.
Kurdistan has been an oasis of relative calm in Iraq since 1991, when the area became a semi-autonomous enclave under Western protection. The region has earned the reputation of being a safe haven in an otherwise dangerous country.
On Christmas Eve, thousands of worshippers crowded into Ainkawa's Mar Yousuf church and its outside yard, decorated with bright lights and a big Christmas tree.
Dozens of policemen with machine guns stood guard outside the church. Authorities stepped up security and erected checkpoints outside the town to ward off any attack, said Lieutenant Rawaz Azad, director of Ainkawa's traffic police.
SANTA CLAUS AND JINGLE BELLS
Outside the Mar Yousuf church, cars inched forward in a traffic jam, as the song Jingle Bells blared from a car stereo. Many of the cars were covered in colourful streamers, or had Santa Claus toys on the dashboard.
On some major streets in Ainkawa, children stood together in anticipation of Santa Claus. Every year, local men dressed in red costumes drive through town in a pick-up truck, distributing gifts to local children.
In Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, upscale shopping centres such as the Majidi Mall are decorated with Christmas trees and festooned with banners that say "Merry Christmas."
"It's become impossible to have something like this in Baghdad," said Ablahad, huddling in the cold outside an Ainkawa church with his family.
The U.N. refugee agency said last week that some 1,000 Christian families, roughly 6,000 people, had fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas. Iraq's Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now believed to be about 850,000 out of a population estimated at 30 million.
Bayan Awdesh, 50, said even her Muslim neighbours were getting into the Christmas spirit.
"They have bought a Christmas tree as well," she said, as she made last-minute purchases in the Boto Bazaar.
But for some of the refugees, sorrow over the lives they left behind means Christmas is no longer a cause for joy.
"I won't celebrate because I have no money," said Hekanosh Harkuon, a former university professor from Baghdad, as she shopped for winter clothes for her four daughters.
"My husband is a church security guard," added Harkuon. "He's our sole source of income."
(Writing by Namo Abdulla; Editing by Caroline Drees)