Christmas time in Galway- Santa Claus & Christians in Iraq

A snapshot of Galway during Christmas time would not be complete without making reference to the oldest church in the city which is dedicated to St. Nicholas or 'Santa Claus' as he is affectionally known today.
It is an imposing medieval structure that dates from 1320. Like many churches located the seaports of medieval Europe it was named after St. Nicholas, the patron saints of sailors.
According to legend, Christopher Columbus visited the church in 1477. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem as the city had a long maritime trade link with Spain.
Walking around the church, I came across this Celtic Cross memorial dedicated to Galwegians killed fighting in the British military during 1916. A wreath had recently been laid at its base.
This is not unusual as St. Nicholas was a Protestant Church of the ruling establishment and served as a garrison church of the local British Army regiment- the Connaught Rangers. Hence its interior is festooned with battle banners and memorials from the colonial wars of the British Empire.
On closer inspection, I noticed that one name in the roll of honour was that of an Edward Berry son of the local parish rector who was killed in a place called 'Bait Aiesa' in Mesopotamia. The latter is known now as Iraq with the Arabic placename of 'Bait Aiesa' meaning the 'town of Jesus' in English .
At that very moment, I conjurred up in my mind the image of St. Nicholas and the colour 'red' . But not the red of Santa's clothing; rather the colour of blood and associations with enslaved women, religious wars, intolerant fundamentalism and today's conflict in the Middle East.

Shock!-Santa was born in the hot climate of Turkey, not the frozen Arctic!
The original St. Nicholas was a Christian living in the Greco-Roman city of Myra in what is now Turkey which was, until the 12th century, the heartland of world Christianity. The Muslim Turks only settled in these lands that now bear their name after 1071 when they defeated the Eastern Roman Greek-speaking Empire known as Byzantium.
Nicholas was a kindly man who carried out many charitable acts. According to one famous story, he secretively delivered 3 bags of coin to a poor father that allowed him to provide marriage dowries for his three daughters thus saving them from a life of as prostitution in the city's brothels. Shades of today's enforced slavery of poverty-stricken women primarily from Eastern Europe in the brothels of France, Italy, Germany, Britain etc which to me is one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century and a stain on the hearts of the continent's political leaders.

St. Nicholas' Body Stolen by Christian Pirates
After his death, he was honoured as a saint and his tomb became a famous shrine with a repuation for miraculous cures. But as the Byzantine lands fell to the Turkish invaders in the late 11th century, Italian piractical sailors attacked Myra and stole the saint's bones. They brought the relics to the church in their home port of Norman-controlled Bari allowing the latter to reap the economic benefits of being an imporant centre of Christian pilgrimage. These were the same Normans whose invasion of Celtic Ireland a hundred years later was sanctioned by the Pope and who later founded the city of Galway.

The Death of Christian Communities in Iraq & in the Middle East
Interestingly it was the Turkish invasion of Byzantium that led to the birth of the Crusades when Christians from Western Europe set out on their blood-drench march to liberate Jerusalem from the 'infidel'. As with Israel and Iraq today, there was a temporary Western victory and occupation. But the arrogant Westerners never won the hearts and minds of the local inhabitatants and, within a few years, they were on the defensive. Their greatest protagonist was 'Saledin' born in what is now present-day Iraq and a historical hero of Saddam Hussein.
Unfortunately, the long term legacy from the Crusades was a dramatic reduction in the native Christians populations of the Middle and Near East who suffered increased persecutions from Muslims that associated them with the European invaders purely because of their religion. Sadly this mirrors what is happening today in Palestine and Iraq thanks to the disasterous belligerent policies of Bush and Blair. There is now, particularly in the case of Iraq, a mass exodus of Christian communities that have existed since the dawn of Christianity as they become the targets of Islamic fundamentalists. It is hard to believe that Iraq was once a vibrant centre of Christian religion from where missionaries ventured further east to spead the gospel. Today all this heritage is under threat. Bush talks much of changing the face of the Middle East. His madcap imperialist adventure may indeed do so for we are now witnessing the disappearance from the region of a religion that survived persecution for nearly two thousand years.

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