Never mind who’s being naughty or nice, Santa Claus himself supposedly has had bigger problems in Iraq and Syria, where he either did or did not get arrested in the run-up to his big night this year, the New York Times reported on Monday.
Various accounts widely shared in local social media during the weekend before Christmas had Papa Noel, as Christians in Iraq and Syria call him, being arrested by the Iraqi police, drafted into the Syrian army or going off to fight ISIS.
The reports grew so widespread that the police in Iraq, a country where sectarian divisions often lead to bloodshed, took pains to publicly deny them.
“A group of sarcastic posts spread talk of the arrest of Papa Noel with a picture written on it, ‘Karbala police arrest Papa Noel,’ and this picture spread on social network sites,” said Col. Alaa Al-Ghanimi, the spokesman for the police in Karbala, the Shiite holy city in central Iraq. “The police command absolutely deny this news and there is no such arrest.”
Colonel Ghanimi said the photo had actually been taken not in Iraq but in Syria, and the police in the picture with the Santa were actually helping him distribute presents to children, using a police Toyota pickup truck instead of the customary reindeer-powered vehicle.
Iraq has a significant Christian minority, although many of them have fled the country in recent years, attacked in some places by Shiites and in others by Sunni extremists like the Islamic State. In 2010, attacks on Iraqi Christian churches were so serious that many canceled the traditional Christmas Eve services for fear of bombing, but recently those fears have eased.
As the offending photographs — some showing two Santas in custody, and wearing oddly short black beards rather than white ones — were more and more widely shared, the locations changed to various cities in Iraq. Posts claimed that the arrest had taken place in Karabala, Najaf, Hamdaniya or even in distant Sulaimaniya, a Kurdish area.
In Iraq, social media alarmism to the contrary, many Christians said that 2018 was better than a lot of Christmases past, thanks to improved security.