Dawlat Elias spoke with dry eyes about the Muslims now squatting in her abandoned house in Kirkuk, Iraq, and of her grueling journey from the only home she ever knew. She is stoic about...

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DAMASCUS, Syria — Dawlat Elias spoke with dry eyes about the Muslims now squatting in her abandoned house in Kirkuk, Iraq, and of her grueling journey from the only home she ever knew. She is stoic about the idea that she’ll never see her country again.

“Everybody’s homeland is very dear to them, but as Christians, we can’t live in Iraq anymore,” she said calmly.

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But every time she mentioned Christmas, her composure cracked and tears spilled down her leathery cheeks.

“You can’t imagine how happy I am to see the Christmas decorations here in Damascus,” she said, dabbing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “If we put a cross outside in Iraq, they’d shoot it until it fell. We couldn’t go to church for two years. That was oppression.”

Last year, Iraq’s Christians celebrated their first Christmas after Saddam Hussein’s ouster with brightly decorated trees, Santa Claus appearances and emotional services at Baghdad’s historic churches. This year, many of those churches are charred and rubble-strewn from a string of bombings in August.

Christians have lived in Iraq for hundreds of years, enjoying peaceful relations with Muslims for most of that time. But after the U.S.-led invasion, insurgents began targeting the community, accusing Christians of cooperating with American “infidels” by working as translators, house cleaners and merchants. Harassment by Islamists became so bad that many Christian women took to wearing Muslim hijab to cover their heads.

Christian leaders estimate as many as 50,000 Christians have fled the country since last year, mostly to Jordan and Syria.

Christians say the attacks — including the coordinated bombings of five churches last August and drive-by shootings of Christian liquor-store owners — have spoiled what is typically the most joyous time of year for their community.

Christian leaders in Iraq said they would hold short, subdued Masses but would forgo traditional pageants, caroling and feasts. Christmas Eve midnight Masses will be held in the afternoon.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have straggled into Syria, and each new attack brings a fresh wave. They have knitted themselves into makeshift communities, including this one in an illegal slum on the outskirts of Damascus. Here, in slapped-together, cinder-block homes on unpaved back streets, the refugees will observe their first Christmas in exile.

The dusty streets flashed with strings of twinkling lights the week before Christmas, and shiny glass bulbs and felt Santa’s caps were heaped on card tables at the roadside. The faint strains of “Jingle Bells” slipped from the shops.

But the mood was bittersweet in the drafty sitting rooms and wire-hatched alleyways where the Iraqi Christians have landed.

The Iraqis in Syria are far from home, sick with longing for their families and battling for jobs, visas and housing. They have escaped the death threats, church bombings and kidnappings that engulfed their homeland after the ouster of Saddam.

But now they are caught between the impulse to start a new life and the sentimental desire to stick to Iraq’s borders in the hope that calm might somehow prevail, and they might be able to go home again.

It may seem ironic that Christians are abandoning U.S.-occupied Iraq en masse to seek shelter in Syria, a nation that is often the target of threats and condemnations from the West. But despite its flaws, secular Syria is widely acknowledged as one of the few bastions of Christian tolerance in an increasingly polarized and tense Middle East.

“When I see an Iraqi Christian, I feel ashamed of what’s happening in Iraq,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian minister of expatriates. “This is the most dangerous thing happening in our region.”

This neighborhood on the margins of Damascus used to be a lush stretch of apricot and almond orchards, but now there’s not a tree to be seen — they were all knocked down to clear the way for the illegal construction. Thick streams of truck traffic stir up clouds of dust and smog. Men sell used clothes and blood oranges from pushcarts.

Through the afternoon clamor wandered three young Iraqis, hands stuffed into pockets and caps pulled low over their brows. At first they said they were Christmas shopping, but they didn’t carry a single package. With a shrug, they admitted their family couldn’t even afford a plastic tree. They were just hanging around.

“I don’t feel at ease here,” said Oscar Elips, a thick-limbed young man of 18 who kept mostly silent and stared into space while the other two, his cousins, talked. “We’re strangers here. We don’t belong.”

“We’re safe, at least,” said Sargon William Slewa, 21. But Elips just set his jaw and stayed quiet.

Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers and Los Angeles Times reporter Edmund Sanders is included in this report.