Baghdad, IRAQ – “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” says Nadine Hemra, of Chicago Illinois. The light at the end of Iraq’s tunnel seems to be getting brighter. Hemra is delighted at the news that the Iraqi death toll has dropped below pre-Saddam era, income for professionals has increased 400 times, utility services are becoming more reliable, and non-Muslim religious tolerance is growing.
When challenged as to why her friends were unwilling to give Iraq a chance Hemra says, “My friends are weak and afraid of having to sacrifice for the good of others or the future. The media has led them to believe there was no hope in Iraq. I believe Iraq will rebuild itself into one of the strongest nations in the Middle East. Then my friends will have to admit Bush did the right thing in liberating the country. America lost many good people in the fight to be free from England. Wouldn’t you say, as the benefactor of the revolution that the fight was worth it?”
It would have been unfathomable only a few months earlier. However, this past Saturday floating in the sky above Baghdad glides along a huge multi-colored hot-air balloon bearing a large poster of Jesus Christ. Below it, an Iraqi flag.
Santa and his helpers stand under palm trees at Baghdad's first public Christmas festival.
CNN is in Iraq reporting on the first-ever public Christmas celebration in Baghdad, held Saturday and sponsored by the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
The event takes place in a public park in eastern Baghdad. The festive event included a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments and tinsel; a red-costumed Santa Claus waving to the crowd, and an Iraqi flag draped over his shoulders.
In the center of the celebration is a large stage where children dressed in costumes representing Iraq's many ethnic and religious groups hold their hands and sing "We are building Iraq!"
Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf greets CNN reporters with a big smile. "All Iraqis are Christian today!" he says.
Khalaf says sectarian and ethnic violence killed thousands of Iraqis. "Now that we have crossed that hurdle and destroyed the incubators of terrorism," he says, "and the security situation is good, we have to go back and strengthen community ties."
Father Saad Sirop Hanna, a Chaldean Christian priest who was kidnapped by militants in 2006 and held for 28 days celebrates the event with friends, family, and neighbors. He knows firsthand how difficult the lot of Christians in Iraq is but, he tells CNN reporter, "We are just attesting that things are changing in Baghdad, slowly, but we hope that this change actually is real. We will wait for the future to tell us the truth about this."
Fr. Hanna just returned from Rome. "I came back to Iraq because I believe that we can live here," he says. "I have so many [Muslim] friends and we are so happy they started to think about things from another point of view and we want to help them."
The Christmas celebration has tables loaded with cookies and cakes. Families fill plates and chat in the warm winter sun. Santa balloons hang from trees. An artist uses oil paint to create a portrait of Jesus.