The school year in Baghdad always began the same way for Sister Beninia Hermes Shoukwana. The Christian nun and headteacher of the Hebtikar School near Palestine Street would be peppered with innocent questions from her mostly Muslim charges.
"Madame headmistress, why don’t you dress like mummy?" they would ask. "Why do you always wear the same white dress?"
This year, the age of innocence has ended and the remarks from parents and students have become more cutting than curious. "I’ve been accused of trying to convert little Muslims to Christianity," says the 64-year-old nun, with deep worry lines on her forehead. "Leaflets have been distributed asking the parents to withdraw their children."
This is not a happy Christmas for the country’s troubled Christians. Many of the churches have cancelled midnight mass for fear of drawing the attention of terrorists.
After decades of living in relative harmony with the Muslim majority, Iraq’s ancient Christian minority ? who include Chaldeans, with allegiance to the Pope, as well as Orthodox Assyrians and Armenians ? is threatened as never before.
A spate of bombings directed at churches, apparently the work of Muslim extremists, has led many to the painful conclusion that Christians are now equated with the US-led occupation regardless of their actual views. They insist that they are Arab nationalists who oppose the American presence just as much as resistance fighters in Fallujah or Mosul. One in 10 Iraqi Christians has fled Iraq.
Five Baghdad churches were attacked in October. In August, similar attacks killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians. Father Saad Hanna’s small church was recently attacked. His parish is now one-third of its pre-war size. "The people are terrified about what is happening," he says. "The people no longer come to church. The truth is, we are in trouble, and we don’t know how to overcome this."
Many Iraqi Christians say they are terrified of attending Christmas services this year. "I’m afraid of car bombs," says Dinkha al-Dawoudi, a 48-year-old hotel receptionist who has two children. "The spirit of Christmas has really been affected by the security conditions."
Gone are the days when Christians’ Muslim friends would join them carol singing, and Christmas trees are definitely out. In fact, few Iraqis are buying the traditional trees. Mohammad Noori sold 35 last year. With two days to go this year he had sold only one.
In Sister Beninia’s three decades as head of the 3,000-student school, she has witnessed wars, bombings and the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein. But these, she says, are the worst of times, and she is unable to hide her distress over the fate of her country and fellow-Christians, mostly Chaldeans, members of the Nestorian sect who converted to Catholicism in the 16th century.
First came the pamphlets distributed in her hometown of Mosul during Ramadan, ordering Christian women to wear the headscarf. There were the August and October attacks on Baghdad churches. Among the victims was a young, newly engaged couple close to Sister Beninia. "For years, Christians and Muslims lived like brothers and sisters," she says. "Today the extremists are trying to separate us." But she has no plans to leave Iraq, vowing to continue her efforts to educate Iraqi children and build bridges between the different faiths.
She has stubbornly refused to bow to the extremists, putting up Christmas trees at her school and getting her students to sing carols. She will attend Christmas mass at her convent. "I will pray for peace in the country," she says.
Sister Beninia had plenty of experience facing down troubles, beginning with the Baath Party’s 1974 decision to nationalise all schools including Hebtikar, which was originally run by her convent. "They wanted to force me to join the Baath party, but I always refused," she says.
Despite her refusal to sign up to Saddam Hussein’s political machinery, she kept her job because of her organisational skills and popularity with students and parents. Another challenge came during the 1980s war with Iran.
After the breakdown in order following the fall of the Saddam regime last year, she spent spring and summer at Hebtikar, protecting it from would-be looters. "I wasn’t armed and I was vulnerable," she says. "But I confronted the thieves and they went away."
Despite increasing prejudice against her faith and threats against her school, the numbers of parents trying to get their children enrolled continues to grow. An annex is being built.
Khaled Hamed Rachid, whose three daughters attend Hebtikar, says: "Of course I’m afraid the fanatics will consider this school a target. Even so, I will never take my daughters out of the school, because its level of discipline is unique."
Sister Beninia, born in 1940 in a village just north of Mosul, joined the Convent of Chaldean Sisters at 11. But she also felt drawn to the world of classrooms and books, and pursued a career in education. She has run schools in Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan and Basra in the Shia south. She took jobs at schools in Kuwait and Dubai before returning to Iraq in 1971 and becoming headteacher at Hebtikar.
Every morning at 7.30, she leaves her residence at the Convent of Immaculate Conception, a humble four-storey building, boards a minibus and, without escorts or bodyguards, she heads to work. There she deals with the myriad daily details of running a big school, substitute teachers, tardy students and worried parents. During break-time, her voice can be heard through a megaphone, demanding order from the crowd of uniformed, chattering children pouring into the yard.
"Stay in line," Sister Beninia Hermes Shoukwana commands. "Don’t run around." The children obey. If classes end abruptly because of an outbreak of fighting or a nearby explosion, she often stays in the school until dawn, making sure everyone gets home safely.
Sixteen of her students, mostly Christians, have left the country. Every day, desperate parents visit her, saying they are frightened and thinking of leaving Iraq. She urges them to stay. "I try to explain to them that wherever they go they’ll always be immigrants," she says. "Iraq is like our house. And it’s our duty to try to clean up our house."