CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq — Security concerns kept many Iraqi Christians away from church Christmas Day, while U.S. troops in Baghdad celebrated the holiday as traditionally as possible — feasting on turkey and then relaxing at the pool table or computer screen.
At one Baghdad church, worshippers walked past armed security guards to attend their Christmas Day Mass.
Once inside, the small congregation at the Syrian Catholic Church lit candles, took part in holy communion and prayed for peace in their troubled homeland. Iraqi children in the church paid their respect to a nativity scene by kissing it.
Many Iraqi Christians, however, chose to stay home for the holiday.
Weariness surrounds holiday
Christians, mostly from the early Assyrian and Chaldean churches, have been on edge since August, when four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were blown up in a coordinated series of car bombings. Many feared their houses of worship would be targets on Christmas.
“Christmas in Iraq is kind of special,” said Lt. Col. Colin Hood, unit commander at Camp Victory near the Baghdad Airport.
“It’s kind of a new beginning and that’s what Christmas is about for us,” he said. “So I’m here with my soldiers and we’re celebrating the holidays as kind of a family, doing good things in a new land.”
Troops got a surprise, Christmas Eve visit Friday from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who met with soldiers in Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit and Baghdad, donning a plastic apron and helping dish out a holiday dinner at one base.
Soldiers at Camp Victory continued the celebration Christmas Day with a turkey feast, followed by pool, table tennis and a chance to write e-mails to their families back in the United States.
David Letterman brought his late-night show to Marines serving in Iraq on Friday, loosening up the Camp Taqaddum crowd with the line, “Anybody here from out of town?”
When hands flew in the air in response to requests for a volunteer to help deliver the opening monologue, he asked: “Isn’t that how you got here?”
With the help of cue cards held by an Army soldier, Letterman ran off a series of crowd-pleasers:
“Iraqi elections are in January. Hurry up and pick somebody so we can get the hell out of here,” he said.
And: “If I wanted to face insurgents I would’ve spent Christmas with my relatives.”
Letterman has repeatedly featured Marines on “The Late Show.”
“Paul and I were in Afghanistan three years ago, and last year we were in Baghdad,” Letterman told the crowd. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re sorry we keep having to come back. If you ever come to New York City, come see us and we’ll treat you like big shots.”
The Marines, most of who have been deployed since late summer, welcomed the visit.
“It was great, all of the Marines getting together having a good time,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ronald Trignano, 32, a tech-controller with Communication Squadron 48. “It almost makes you forget where you are for a little while.”
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