By IsraeliGirl

Holidays and family gathering can be tense but for many Christians in the Middle East this Christmas brings about fear and persecution. The Middle East is a place of great contrasts and looking at the situation of Christians across the Middle East is a great example.

This year in Iraq, there are no Christmas celebrations, religious or otherwise. “Christmas mass has been cancelled as a consequence of the never-ending assassinations against Christians,” announced Louis Sako, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk. “We do not have the right to put people’s lives in danger.”

These are not empty words. Just a few weeks before Christmas on Oct. 31, during Mass, Islamic terrorists attacked the main Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad turning it into a war zone for a few hours while aiming to kill as many Christians as possible. Since 2003, Iraqi Christians have suffered at the hands of radical Islamic groups that have forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Many were killed, kidnapped or threatened while several churches were bombed and their clergy murdered. Iraqi clergy estimated there were one million Christians in Iraq before the war, but the number has dropped to 400,000.

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Bethlehem ChristmasLooking in Gaza, Christmas is a celebration tempered by fear. Under Hamas regime Gaza has changed from a place where religion has never been an issue, to one where Christians are harassed on the streets.

Radical Islam has been targeting Christians beyond the Middle East as well. A series of Christmas Eve church attacks and explosions left 38 people dead in Nigeria and six injured in the Philippines.

But if you look at Bethlehem, the Palestinian city where Jesus Christ was believed to have been born, you see a very different picture. Palestinian tourism officials estimate that by year’s end up to 2mn people will have visited the southern West Bank town.

The holiday atmosphere was palpable in every corner this week. The city is decorated to the gills, with Santa mannequins on the streets and lots and lots of tourists. The hotels reported full occupancy and the restaurants vigorously prepared for guests. Some of the finest Middle Eastern singers will be performing in Bethlehem and Sahour, in an attempt to entertain the visitors from all over the world, Israel, and even Gaza.

Israel issued permits for 7,000 Palestinian Christians from the West Bank to visit Bethlehem and also allowed several hundred of Gaza’s Christian community to attend the festivities in the Biblical city. Some 200 Christians from Arab states with whom Israel does not have ties are also allowed to attend the celebrations. West Bank: A boy watches the parade outside the Church of the Nativity while Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem

Compared to the fear and chaos in Baghdad, the festivity in Bethlehem makes you hope for a peaceful future. From us in here is a toast for peaceful co-existence with freedom of religion to all.