Ziyad, Dalia and Kristel Matti arrived in Edmonton this month after fleeing persecution in Iraq.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Ziyad, Dalia and Kristel Matti arrived in Edmonton this month after fleeing persecution in Iraq.

December 19, 2011
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Due to the persecution of Christians in Iraq, Ziyad Matti and his wife Dalia Hikmat haven't had a proper Christmas in years.

Now they are looking forward to their first peaceful Christmas since 1993, when the persecution and killing of Christians in Iraq began full scale. For them, Christmas is about the birthday of Jesus and a time to show love and forgiveness to others.

Their celebration will be quiet though, because the couple has more pressing needs such as settling in their new country and finding their way around.

Ziyad, Dalia and their one-year-old daughter Kristel arrived in Edmonton just a few days ago from Lebanon, where they had been living since their escape from Iraq in 2009.

They are staying at the Rotary Centre for New Canadians, a complex for refugees and immigrants run by Catholic Social Services. Ziyad is a computer engineer and Dalia a chemical engineer. They are both Orthodox Christians.

"We are expecting a peaceful Christmas," Dalia said. "We expect to go out, meet friends and go to Church."

The couple spoke to the WCR Dec. 13 through an interpreter, Azhar Aziz, a staff member at the Rotary Centre.

Before the American invasion, there was harmony among religions in Iraq. Christians would celebrate Christmas openly and their Muslim friends would say "Merry Christmas to you," recalled Dalia.

CHRISTMAS TREE

They would set up a well-decorated Christmas tree in the living room complete with a Nativity scene and surrounded by presents.

On Christmas Eve they would attend Mass late at night and the next day they would celebrate with friends, dining on turkey and opening presents. Those were happy times.

Everything changed in 2003 when groups began bombing Christian churches and persecuting Christians.

"Before that, all religions lived together in harmony. Now they are fighting Christians," Ziyad explained. "New faces came to Iraq and started to fight the Christian people."

The couple spoke of a society dominated by fear where some groups use Islam to justify violence and divide Iraqi society.

They were living in Baghdad at the time and recall the bombing of a Christian church where a lot of people were killed. They eventually moved to a small village near the city of Mosul.

NATIVITY SCENE HIDDEN

Under persecution, Ziyad and Dalia would celebrate Christmas by themselves in the house, rather quietly. The Nativity scene had to be hidden under the tree in case someone came in. Instead of going to Mass at night, they would have to go at 6 a.m.

And there was no more turkey for Christmas dinner because they couldn't afford it.

Dalia said restrictions and danger are all over Iraq, especially for Christians. Once her brother and sister were going to college when an armed gang stopped them. They told her to start wearing a hijab and told them they couldn't go around together as woman and man. "This is a warning. Next time we'll kill you."

Asked if Iraq will ever return to peace, the couple said, "No way." They, however, hope and pray to God that better times do return to their homeland.