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

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 Iraqi police, drafted into the Syrian army or going off to fight the Islamic State group.

The reports grew so widespread that 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, spokesman for police in Karbala, the Shiite holy city in central Iraq. "The police command absolutely deny this news and there is no such arrest."

Al-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 instead of the customary reindeer-powered vehicle.

Iraq has a significant Christian minority, although many of them have fled the country in recent years.

As the offending photographs — some showing two Santas in custody — were more widely shared, the locations changed to various cities in Iraq. Posts claimed that the arrest had taken place in Karbala, Najaf, Hamdania or even in distant Sulaimaniyah, a Kurdish area.

"Can anybody tell the truth about it?" asked one Twitter user, Ali Y Al-Baroodi.

The police spokesman from Karbala warned people that citing unfounded claims and stirring up sectarian sentiments was dangerous.

"The Holy Karbala Police Command calls on the necessity of checking the news with official sources to prevent posting such rumors, deliberately or not," Al-Ghanimi said. "They should report true news and not be dragged along behind the lying news."