As one might imagine, Christmas doesn’t get a lot of attention in Muslim nations, even those with significant Christian minorities. In the Arab world’s first democracy, however, the holiday has provided an opportunity for ecumenical celebration:
From a distance, it looks like an apparition: a huge multi-colored hot-air balloon floating in the Baghdad sky, bearing a large poster of Jesus Christ. Below it, an Iraqi flag.
Welcome to the first-ever public Christmas celebration in Baghdad, held Saturday and sponsored by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Once thought to be infiltrated by death squads, the Ministry now is trying to root out sectarian violence — as well as improve its P.R. image.
The event takes place in a public park in eastern Baghdad, ringed with security checkpoints. Interior Ministry forces deployed on surrounding rooftops peer down at the scene: a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments and tinsel; a red-costumed Santa Claus waving to the crowd, an Iraqi flag draped over his shoulders; a red-and-black-uniformed military band playing stirring martial music, not Christmas carols. …
Even before I can ask Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf a question, he greets me with a big smile. “All Iraqis are Christian today!” he says.
Can anyone imagine this celebration taking place with government support in any other Arab nation — even those normally described as “moderate”? Not only does this celebration include the standard secular imagery of Santa Claus, they actually put a picture of Jesus Christ on a hot-air balloon. That’s a big deal in a Muslim nation, where they object strenuously (and often violently) to iconography. Suggesting that Iraqis are “all Christians” on any day would get a Muslim fired or worse anyplace else in the region.
This is what victory looks like. Iraq has settled into what Condoleezza Rice called a “multi-confessional” society, one that has begun to promote a religious tolerance that is unlike anything seen in that region in decades, if not centuries or ever. Iraq may not match Western nations yet for religious tolerance, but they have progressed rapidly over the last five years, and will provide leadership for ecumenism in a region that desperately needs it.
Two cheers to CNN for this report. Unfortunately, they lose another cheer for not airing the report on their broadcast, at least according to Newsbusters.