After the fall of Saddam Hussein, thousands of Iraqis fled Baghdad, including many Christians who had lived with their Muslim neighbors for centuries. Now, with the security situation improving, some of Iraq's Christians are returning home, just in time for Christmas.
It is a nearly giftless Christmas for the Rafael family, returning to church in Baghdad for the first time since they fled the capital's soaring violence last year.
Polis Rafael sold his taxi to pay for the move from the relatively peaceful Kurdish region in northern Iraq, back to Baghdad. On Christmas Day, his children will unwrap only new clothes. But 6-year-old Remrama has already crossed off the top item on her list — going home.
"Her mother asked her which is better — Kurdistan or Baghdad?" he said. "And she answered, 'Baghdad is better.'"
The Rafaels are among a trickle of Christians who have returned to Baghdad. Like many other returnees, they are encouraged by the improved security. But they're also broke, living in a three-bedroom home with two other families, and hoping to return to a standard of living they haven't known since the fall of Hussein in 2003.
"Baghdad is like our mother," Reema Rafael said, while weeping. She prays to God that improved security here will let Iraqi Christians return home.
Christianity has always been about faith versus adversity. In Baghdad, on Christmas Eve, among one of the world's oldest Christian communities, that is as true now as ever. And their faith has been tested.
On a single day in August 2004, six churches in Mosul and Baghdad were firebombed. Priests have been murdered, and parishioners have been forced to convert or pay a special "tax."
Christianity arrived in pre-Islamic times, and Iraqi Christians lived alongside Muslims here for centuries. Since the U.S.-led toppling of Hussein, Iraq's Christian community has been decimated, and thousands have fled. A United Nations report says 40 percent of all Iraqis who have left the country are Christian, although they make up only 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million residents.
Father Jamil Nissan says nearly half his parishioners at Baghdad's Suood Catholic Church have fled since the U.S. invasion. This year, he expects full pews on Christmas, an expectation borne out here on the last mass before Christmas.
For the Rafael family, and for the families of the children singing a familiar carol here, remaining in Baghdad is a sign of faith in the future of the capital city.