Our brothers and sisters in Iraq today are undergoing one of the most difficult periods of persecution in their long history, for they are being systematically harassed, kidnapped and killed on a daily basis. Their numbers have dwindled from over a million, or 5% of the population, at the time of Saddam Hussein to barely 2% now. Although their plight is reported frequently by the Christian press, there is hardly any mention of it by the secular media in this country.
Iraqi Christians may not be considered worth mentioning by the secular press, but they are among the most ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. The Church historian Eusebius (d. 340), among others, states that St. Thomas the Apostle preached the Gospel throughout Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran) and India. In fact, India’s Christians who live around Goa and the Malabar Coast are still nicknamed “the St. Thomas Christians” today.
The church in Iraq took shape by the end of the 2nd century and became known as “The Church of the East”, with a patriarch residing in Seleucia-Ctesiphon near modern-day Baghdad. For several centuries, the Christians of Mesopotamia were persecuted by their Persian rulers because they refused to adopt the Zoroastrian religion, and many of them, including Patriarch Simon Bar-Sabba’I, were martyred under King Shappur II. Nevertheless, these Christians (my ancestors) kept their faith and, on the eve of the Arab Islamic conquests in the 7th c. A.D., the Christian religion was widespread throughout Iraq, M.E. & N.A.
Under Islam, Christians and Jews were spared death on account of their being “the people of the book”, but they had to pay a hefty religious tax called “jizya”, while the pagans had to either convert to Islam or die. Although tolerated, Christians in every Muslim-majority country have always been regarded as second-class citizens because they do not belong to the “umma” or the community of Islam.
For many centuries under Islamic rule, Christians went through intermittent periods of persecution, depending on who the rulers were. However, the Church still flourished in various ways: developing beautiful liturgies and monastic traditions, as well as sending out missionaries, as far as Cyprus to the West and China to the East.
This happened after the Mesopotamian church adopted the Nestorian heresy in the 5th century and hence became known as “The Nestorian Church”. Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople who described Christ as if he had two personalities, one in heaven and the other on earth. He was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and was later banished to Egypt.
In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars in Mesopotamia and Syria helped build the foundation for Arab philosophy and science by translating the classical works of Plato, Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers into Syriac and Arabic. Syriac ( also known as Aramaic or Chaldean) is the very language spoken by Jesus himself, which we still speak and use extensively in our liturgies.
Various dynasties, including that of the fearsome Mongols, ruled Iraq & the Middle East. Then, in 1453, Constantinople, the great capital of Byzantine or Eastern Christendom, fell to the Ottoman Turks who changed its name to Istanbul. They ruled for about 400 years until their defeat in World War One, after which their rule was confined to modern-day Turkey which was founded by Kamal Attaturk.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, more than a million Armenians were massacred by Turkish and Kurdish forces simply on account of their Christian religion. Other Christians (Syrians, Assyrians & Chaldeans) were also caught up in these atrocities and were martyred for their faith. After WW1, Iraq became a monarchy and then a republic, undergoing a number of bloody coups, until Saddam Hussein took over in 1979. But, in the early decades of the 20th c., Christians and Jews played an important role in founding modern Iraq.
Before analysing today’s situation, we need to look briefly at an important change that affected the church in Iraq in the 16th century. Due to the Nestorian heresy and corruption in the patriarchal system, a large section of the church turned to Rome and converted to Catholicism. This group became known as the Chaldean Catholic Church and was given its own patriarch. This Chaldean Church (to which I belong) grew and eventually became the church of the majority of the Christians in Iraq. Our “Nestorian” counterpart later split into two churches, one of which adopted the name “Assyrian” and the other assumed the old title of “The Church of the East”. Iraq has other Christian denominations, both Uniate (i.e., Catholic) and Orthodox: Armenians, Syrians, Melkites and Copts, plus some Latin Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants.
Although Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, his regime was secular by nature and similar to the Arab Ba’th regime in Syria today. Hence there was no official discrimination against the Christians, as long as they toed the party line. However, after the American invasion, the Christians’ fortune was reversed when they became unjustly identified with the “Christian” invaders. Previously, and in spite of popular prejudices which always existed, they could at least live and worship in peace and life was generally bearable.
In the last few years however, Iraq’s Christians are being targeted and persecuted by Muslim fanatics, with the Americans turning a blind eye and completely ignoring their pleas for help. Unfortunately for the Christians, they are caught up in the middle of a savage civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, as well as Arabs and Kurds, all vying to gain control of the country.
What particularly compounds the tragedy of Iraqi Christians is the fact that the private armies and gangs of Islamists appear to consider the indigenous Christian population to be their common enemy. Sadly, the Christians are a soft target because they are fewer in number, are not armed and have no clans or tribes to come to their rescue. Hence, hundreds of them have been terrorised, abducted and killed. Christian women and girls are ordered to cover up according to the strict Shari’a laws, or else they are attacked and raped. Priests are ordered to remove crosses and not ring church bells, or else their churches risk being destroyed.
It was in 2004 that the first co-ordinated attacks began with six churches being simultaneously bombed while worshippers were praying inside. Many more churches have since been destroyed and countless kidnappings have taken place, of both adults and children, with huge demands for ransom being made, after which the victims are either killed or released. Priests and lay people alike have been beheaded, crucified or shot dead. They have all died in the tradition of true martyrs for Christ, refusing to give up their faith, bearing no hatred towards their neighbour, harbouring no political ambitions, and simply wanting to live in peace.
Most of the atrocities have taken place in the capital Baghdad, with others happening in Mosul in the north, Basra in the south, and elsewhere. Even the bishops and the Chaldean Patriarch himself have not been spared nasty threats. Among the list of clergy who have been martyred we can name Fr. Munir al-Saqa (shot dead in 2006), Fr. Poulos Iskander (beheaded in 2006), Fr. Ragheed Ghanny who was shot dead with three deacons in June 2007 in a car, having just celebrated mass, and in 2008 the Chaldean bishop of Mosul. Nuns have also been killed as well as numerous lay people.
Early in 2008, the Dora district of Baghdad (which was populated by a large number of Christians) was taken over by a gang of Muslim fanatics. They succeeded in kicking out all the Christian families and closing down churches, monasteries, convents and the Chaldean major seminary (which became an American military base).
The aim of the Islamists is to turn the country into a theocratic state under Sharia rule. Their imams issue “fatwas” (religious decrees) against “the Christian infidels” and preach hatred towards Christians and the West every Friday in the mosques. Christians are being given four options to choose from by the fanatics: a) to convert to Islam, b) to leave their homes and never return to them, c) to pay the jizya, or d) to face death.
Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of them have fled and are still fleeing, either heading north to the relative safety of Kurdish areas, or leaving the country altogether, living as refugees in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere. So, more than half of the Christian population of Baghdad have now fled, hardly any are left in the south of the country, while those living in the north may still face grave problems in the future.The United Nations is reportedly monitoring the situation and making estimates about refugees, etc., but without doing anything about it. Christian charities, as well as human rights organisations, are doing what they can to help. Prominent religious figures are making their voices heard in protest. However, unless the secular media is mobilised and the most powerful politicians are truly galvanised, the tragedy of Iraq’s Christians will get worse, and it may well end up in their complete annihilation, with the rest of the world looking on.