Several residents of Al-Hamdaniya (Baghdede in Assyrian), an Iraqi Christian town, dressed up as Santa Claus to stage an uplifting Christmas parade for local children on Sunday, roughly seven years after the community was invaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported Monday.
About one dozen local men donned Santa Claus costumes, including his iconic white beard, and gathered in the center of Al-Hamdaniya to distribute colorfully wrapped sweet pastries to children on the evening of December 20. The Santas were assisted by a man dressed in Biblical-era garb who led a donkey as it pulled a wooden cart carrying the treats. Another resident dressed as Disney's Mickey Mouse and accompanied the Christmas parade.
"Praise be to God, we saw Santa this year and children rejoiced," Al-Hamdaniya resident Christian Boutros told AFP on December 20.
"We could not see Santa before because of the difficult coronavirus situation, and in the previous years there was Daesh [ISIS]," he recalled.
"We are distributing gifts, or let's say sweets to children," Rani Bassem, one of the Al-Hamdaniya residents who dressed up as Santa Claus, told AFP on Sunday.
"I'm doing this to make the children and their families happy, to put smiles on children's faces," he said.
"Because Iraqi people have suffered a lot," he added, referring to the country's invasion by ISIS starting in about June 2014.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
Al-Hamdaniya is located just eight miles south of Qaraqosh, which is known as Iraq's Christian capital. ISIS terrorists overran Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida, in June 2014.
"Eyewitnesses in Qaraqosh said IS militants were taking down crosses in churches and burning religious manuscripts," the BBC reported in August 2014.
Qaraqosh is located 19 miles southeast of Mosul, which was captured by ISIS in June 2014.
"Last month [July 2014], hundreds of Christian families fled Mosul after the Islamist rebels gave them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax or be executed," the BBC reported.
Iraq is home to an ancient Christian population that largely resides in the country's Nineveh Plains region, which is where both Al-Hamdaniya and Qaraqosh are situated. Christians constitute a minority in Iraq, which is officially an Islamic country. About 97 percent of Iraq's population identifies as Muslim.
"Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country [Iraq], with the largest population -- at least 200,000 -- living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR [Iraqi Kurdistan Region] in the north of the country," the U.S. State Department wrote in 2019 as part of an International Religious Freedom report for Iraq.
Iraq's Christian population has significantly declined from a pre-2002 population estimate of 800,000 to 1.4 million.
About 67 percent of Iraqi Christians identify as Chaldean Catholics, which is "an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church," according to the U.S. State Department report.
"[N]early 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants," the U.S. government agency observed.
"There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly," the report revealed.