History of Christianity in Iraq

by Dr Suha Rassam

 

St Thomas

Christian tradition attributes evangelization of Mesopotamia to the apostles Toma (Thomas), Addai (Thaddaeus), and their pupils Mari and Aggai.

By the second Christian century Iraq claims Christian converts from paganism who wrote in Syriac and Greek. By the third century we have evidence of an organized community with an Episcopal structure and church buildings.

During the fourth century, the land of Iraq witnessed a fierce persecutions of the Christians by the ruling Persians that claimed thousands of lives. Since it lasted forty years it is commonly called ‘The Forty Years Persecution’ (AD339-379).

Dair Rabban HormizDuring the fifth century two important synods were convened. The first was convened in AD 410 with the permission of the Persian ruler Yezdegird I, who officially recognized the Christian community and gave them rights of worship. The second Synod was convened in AD424 in which the Church within the Persian Empire severed all relations with the Western Church thus becoming self-ruling, with the bishop of the capital as the leader and final judge.

BashtabiaThis church was sometimes called The Persian Church, The Nestorian Church or more correctly The Church of the East. From its centre, the capital of the Persian Empire Seleucia Ctesiphon, the Patriarch sent missions eastwards to Iran, Central Asia, India, China, and southwards to the Arabian Peninsula and Socotra.

Dair Mar MattaFollowing the Councils of Ephesus and of Chalcedon, in 431AD and 451AD consecutively, a new community emerged in Mesopotamia, ‘The Syrian Orthodox Church’ mainly in areas of Tikrit and Der Mar Mattai.

Its leader, the Mephrian, continued to follow the leadership of Antioch and resided in Tikrit. It was recognized as independent community by Persian authorities as in 629AD.

SyriacBoth Churches that co-existed within Iraq (The Church of the East & The Syrian Orthodox Church) were highly cultured and had many centres of learning.

Their mainstay was the Syriac language, a dialect of the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke. Many Syriac centres of learning were established in which not only theology and Biblical studies were taught but also languages, history, medicine and other sciences.

Dair Mar BehnamNumerous monasteries dotted Iraq from north to south in which learning was also pursued. Some of these monasteries date to the fourth and fifth centuries and are still functioning, the most famous are the monasteries of Mar Matta, Mar Behnam and Mar Giwagis near Mosul.

At the eve of the seventh century when the Muslims arrived, the Church of Iraq had more Christians under its jurisdiction than the western churches It had reached its peak in learning and its members had a near monopoly in subjects like medicine, Greek language and philosophy. Under Umayyad and Abbasid rules the Christians were treated as Dhimmis i.e.. they had to pay a special tax (al-Jyzya) as a price of their protection since they were not conscripted in the army, and had to follow al-Dhimmi rules that ensured their treatment as second class citizens. These rules were not always enforced and Christians flourished during the first two centuries of Abbasid rule. They served as doctors and confidants to generations of Caliphs and were of vital importance to the emergence of their civilization. By translating the philosophical writings of the Greeks to Arabic, they contributed not only in making these works available to Muslim thinkers but also by assisting in the transmission of knowledge and the creation of lucid Arabic terminology. It is with great sadness that whenever this great history is reviewed it has to be followed by its decline.

TikritFrom the ninth century onwards the decline was gradual and by the tenth century, Christian centres such as Tikrit and Seleucia Ctesiphoe have disappeared. Isolated and impoverished the Christians retreated to the mountains and were forgotten by the western church until after the crusades.

Contact with the Roman Catholic Church started from the thirteenth century, mainly in the Island of Cyprus to which the crusaders retreated after defeat by the Muslims. Catholic missionary activity led to the emergence of new churches in union with the Roman Catholic Church. The Chaldean Church was the result of union of some members of the Church of the East with Rome, while the Syrian Catholic Church emerged as a result of union of some members of the Syrian Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant and Anglican missions also led to few Protestant denominations. During Ottoman rule most of the Christians were in isolated mountainous areas where the Turkish gendarme could not reach so they led a free life next to Kurdish tribes, while in other areas where they were reached by the Wali they were usually oppressed as most Walis enforced the Dhimmi rules and followed a policy of extortion and oppression. In the early eighteenth century of Ottomans rule there was reorganization with an attempt to give minorities equal rights. Organized scientific and religious missions flooded the area and in Iraq, the Carmelites established themselves in Basra in 1721 and in Baghdad in 1722, while the Dominicans arrived in Mosul in 1750.

Dominican Church

They opened the first schools and clinics and the Dominicans had the first printing press. During World War I, massacres of Armenian and Syriac Christians led many to seek Iraq for refuge thus increasing its Christian population.

After World War I, the modern state of Iraq was established and Christians were given equal rights and responsibilities to their Muslim brethren. They were conscripted in the army, represented in Parliament and allowed equal access to universities and jobs. They soon excelled in the professions and had prominent roles especially in medicine and journalism. The Christian population was initially concentrated in the north, mainly in Mosul and its surrounding villages. With the increasing importance of the capital, the Patriarch of the Chaldeans moved his residence to Baghdad and so did many Christian families. Following the 1958 revolution, conflicts in Mosul and Kurdistan caused displacement of the Christians to the capital. Emigration started during the Iraqi-Iranian war and was accelerated after the Gulf War. During Saddam’s rule Christians suffered from the cruelty of the regime just as their Muslim brethren did but they were not persecuted just because they were Christians.

House of Chaldean Bishop MosulFollowing the lack of law and order that followed the occupation of Iraq in 2003, Muslim fundamentalist groups started to target Christians calling them infidels and crusaders. Christians have experienced violence from both the Sunni and Shia extremist groups enforcing the hijab, kidnapping, raping, killings and evictions. Churches have been destroyed, crosses removed from their domes and priests abducted and slaughtered. The district of al-Dora which used to be called the “Vatican of Iraq” in view of the presence of two Basilicas, a seminary and the theological college of Babylon, have been emptied of its Christians, the churches closed and the seminary and college relocated to Ankawa near Arbil. All this has led to a massive refugee problem. At least half of the million Christians of Iraq have left to neighbouring countries, mainly to Syria and Jordan while others fled to relatively safe areas within Iraq. Displaced people are destitute and homeless.

THE PLIGHT OF THE IRAQI CHRISTIANS

By Suha Rassam

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The present plight of the Iraqi Cliristians has to be understood within the context of the political, economic and religious situation, not only of Iraq, but also of the Middle East as a whole. It must also be linked to historical realities of coexistence as well as rivalries between Christians and Muslims over the centuries.
When considering historical issues we can't but remember what happened to our ancestors throughout their history. They were rooted in Iraq since the first Christian century and since they were never in political control, their fortunes have oscillated throughout the two millennia of their existence with periods of frank persecutions and Others of tolerance and prosperity. During the fourth century, they went through forty years of continuous persecution by the Sassanid Persians and emerged in the century as a Strong and independent church. When the Muslim Arabs took over in the seventh century, they worked within the restrictions Dhimmi rules and made substantial contributions to the emergence of the Abbasid civilisation. They dialogued with Muslim Caliphs and philosophers without loosing their identity and gained their trust and protection. Their missionaries reached China, Central Asia and India and their church rivaled that of the western churches in its membership and learning.
However, Muslim tolerance diminished as their number increased and as foreign elements were introduced within their rule. During the reign of al-Mutawakil (847-S61) churches were destroyed and large numbers of Christians were dismissed from their office for no other reason than being Christian. Al-Jahiz wrote "al-radd 'ala al-Nasara" and al-Tabari wrote a systematic attack on the Christians in his book "al-Din and al-Dawla" reminding the Christians that they were only Dhimmis. These writers demonstrated how important the Christians had become. Not only were they rich and influential, they have managed to introduce Christian elements to Islamic thought.

The Christians gradually moved to the north of Mesopotamia and the mountains became their safe haven. After the demise of the Abbasids in 1258, they came under Mongol rule then under various Muslim regimes, Turkomans, Persians, and finally the Ottomans. They continued to work their way with their Muslim neighbours often within the same village or town and managed to create a balance abiding by the Dhimmi rules and seeking the support of moderate Muslim rulers.
With the start of European intervention in the Middle East this carefully wrought balance was disturbed and indigenous Christians suffered even more. Starting with the Crusades and continuing through the middle ages when under Ottoman rule, European countries assumed a role of protector for different Christian communities. This led to the association of local Christians with western powers. Muslim anger at these interventions was often channelled into hatred for the local Christian population as they considered them their allies. During the 19th century and right to World War I, the claim of Christians for equality meant that they had broken the Dhimmi contract of submission to their Muslim rulers. In this way they were liable to Jihad even by the secular Ataturk. As a consequence of which over a million Christians, mainly Armenian but also large numbers from the Church of the East, Chaldeans, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics were massacred. This response was reinforced by colonialism and its aftermath during the twentieth century and local Christians were sometimes identified with Imperial Western powers. This response was tempered by the creation of the modem state of Iraq, whose constitution stressed equality of all citizens irrespective of religion and race. Consequently the churches flourished and integration between different strands of society led to the best possible relationship between Muslims and Christians. Having said that we could still feel an attitude of supremacy of Muslims and in spite of a constitution that stated equality in opportunities, administrative posts continued to be largely the prerogative of Muslims. This state of affairs continued until the rule of Saddam sided who gave the Christians administrative posts but at the cost of unconditional loyalty to his regime. Even the secular Saddam allied himself to Islamists when his position was in jeopardy and some persecution of the Christians occurred during the last days of his rule.
Now with the rising current of worldwide Islamic fundamentalism, are we seeing the same pattern being repeated? And how do we deal with the complicated religious-political situation that has its roots deep in our history. Are the Christians of Iraq to be left to their fate? Are we seeing the end of a presence that has spanned almost two millennia?

IRAQ AFTER 2003

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by American and coalition forces, the civilian Iraqi population has been subjected to horrific levels of violence and terror. The re-emergence of deep sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Arabs and Kurds has caused general reordering of Iraq's political framework that had profound implications for all Iraqis leading to conflict and aggression.
All sections of society have suffered from the carnage of war and the chaos that followed the invasion. However the situation of the minorities has special connotations. These include, the Christians, Mandeans, Yezidís, Shabalc, Feli Kurds and Palestinians. My paper will deal with the Christian community only. Their crisis is particularly acute and their existence in their ancient homeland is now threatened for reasons that I will try to elaborate in this paper.

THE PERSECUTION OF THE CHRISTIANS

The presence of flagrant religious persecution of the Christians in Iraq is no longer a matter of speculation. The fact that Muslims are equally suffering from the genera] consequence ofthe invasion, kidnapping, extortion, and casualties related to street bombing, does not mean that the Christian are not specifically persecuted. There is enough evidence to suggest that there are those who want to see the end of Christian presence in Iraq in order to create a pure Islamic state. Father Basil Yaldo who was kidnapped in September 2006, stated to Catholic News Service that he has not been kidnapped for money, but in order to send a message to Patriarch Delly that all Christians should leave Iraq.
While extremist Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are persecuting each other, extremists from both sects are persecuting the Christians. However, while these two factions of Islam are vying for power and have militias to protect them, the Christians are not seeking power and do not have militias to protect them. All they ask is to be allowed to live in peace in what they consider as their own country and in which they lived before the arrival of Islam.
Moreover extremists from both sides are supported by rich neighbouring Muslim countries providing financial and moral support in order to their specific agenda. To my knowledge there is no country that supports the Christians. Their presence is ignored and their predicament is ignored by the international community. Their plight is not reported in the national media of western countries. In fact the majority of western people are not even aware of their presence.
Soon after the invasion of Iraq, specific groups with professions that are considered un-Islamic, were targeted, namely alcohol dealers, hairdressers, musicians and owners of musical instruments. Women were forced to wear the Hijab and some were raped and killed when they refused. Numerous lay people were kidnapped, extorted of large sums of money and slaughtered. Threat to a church leader came as early as June 2003 to be followed by many others. A total of fifteen priests have so far been kidnapped, some left with marks of torture, four priests and three deacons murdered brutally and over churches have been attacked and many more closed. Convents have been emptied and occupied by militias and the Seminary and theological college relocated to Arbil in the Kurdistan region. Messages on mobile phones or on pieces of paper thrust under the doors of Christian houses calling them Dhimmis who have to pay the jizya or leave. Others called them as dirty infidels, crusaders and collaborators with western powers. Some Mullas spoke from their mosques sending clear messages: the properties of the Christians are halal (lawful) for you, do not buy it from them, they will be leaving and it will be automatically yours.
In al-Dora district of Baghdad as well as in some areas of Mosul, religious cleansing started. People were confronted in their own homes with direst threats: "leave your home, convert to Islam or face the consequence". This is how al-Dora district of Baghdad has been practically emptied of its Christians. Al-Dora used to be called the Vatican of Iraq in view of its predominant Christian population, the presence of two cathedrals as well as several churches and the Chaldean seminary and Babylon theological college. Its population comprised middle and lower income families and some are very poor. They left with their clothes only and are now dependent on the charity of their relatives living abroad or the churches. Some could not afford to leave the country and moved to relatively safer areas of Baghdad.

One parish in Baghdad, with which our charity, Iraqi Christians in Need, is involved, received over 1,000 families. The priest together with a group of lay people have been organising help in finding them accommodation and support.

THE REFUGEE PROBLEM

Because of all these atrocities Christians have been leaving the country in large numbers. Displacement is not new to the Iraqi Christians. Emigration to Western countries started from the beginning of the nineteenth century. The main motivation initially was the economic factor and the destination was the USA. Early immigrants attracted their friends and relatives and formed the large Iraqi communities now present in Detroit, Chicago and California. Later political events and internal conflict led to further immigration starting with the massacre of Simmel 1933, to the conflict between the government and the Kurds in the nineteen-sixties. During the Iraq-Iran war people left because they did not want to fight a war they did not believe in. After the Gulf war and during the long years of sanction emigration involved all sections of society. By then people lost hope of any good happening to their country and felt that there is no future for their children. Leaving became more or less the norm for those who could. Families with deep roots abandoned their land and property and left to Jordan in order to prepare for emigration. The destination was no longer the USA but Canada, Australia, New Zealand. These countries accepted people with specific criteria draining the qualified and those with financial capabilities.
However, the displacement since the second Gulf war is quite different. People are now fleeing for their life. They are usually the impoverished who could not afford to leave earlier or those who would not leave for specific reasons. It is estimated that since the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces. more than half of the Christian population have left their homes to safer areas or to neighbouring countries. Initially they left to Jordan while during the last two years the main destination was Syria, to be followed by Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and other countries.
Of the total of 2 million Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries, Christians predominate. UNHCR has reported that 44% of those registering with them in Syria are Christians even though Christians constitute less than 5% of the population. In another report, an official from UNHCR speaking on condition of anonymity said to UN news agency IRIN, that minorities of Iraq make up about 30% of Iraqi refugees whose total number is thought to be 1.8 million

Iraqi refugees living in neighbouring countries are not given official refugee status although the UN registers them as such. In some countries, have to pay fines when their visa expires, which can amount to a large Sum of money annually. They are able to survive only thanks to their relatives who have left to western countries earlier. Those who have no relatives abroad are destitute and are only helped by the churches and some charitable institutions. Some are resorting to desperate measures like selling their kidneys or pursuing illegal activities and the psychological problems are enormous, while others ended in prison.
At the end of 2007, there were reports of improvement in the general security situation and immigrants were encouraged to go back to their homes. Buses are waiting in front of the Iraqi embassy in Damascus gave free transport and the equivalent of $800 per family for those who want to return. Antoine Audo, the Chaldean bishop of Syria, stated that although many have returned, the Christian are more reluctant to go back. They need to see a permanent stable situation, not only improvement in general security. Mark Urban, reporting in a program on British television in September 2008 showed a wall that has been built between the Shiite and Sunni areas of al-Dora district in order to minimise the conflict between the two communities. For the Christians this is evidence of how flimsy the security is.

CHALLENGES FOR THE FUTURE

The question that poses itself is: will there ever be a stable situation in which the Christians of Iraq are treated as equal citizens? With Islamist agendas of the majority political parties that are ruling the country at the present time, the Christians do not feel secure. There has been a lot of debate about an article in the constitution, which states that no law can be enacted against the tenets of Islam. Although this was followed by an article which states that no law can be enacted against the principles of democracy, the Christians are afraid of future enforcement of Sharia law and would not tolerate a Dhimmi status as their ancestors did.
As for the Kurdistan area, a lot have been said about its safety for the Christians. It clear that this safety is only relative and the conflict with Turkey has already erupted, Moreover one cannot forget that the Kurds were party to the Turks in massacring the Christians during Ottoman times. Presently the Kurds are trying to absorb the Christians within Kurdistan in order to increase their number in an effort to strengthen their claim for an independent state. The plan of including the Christian villages within the Nineveh plain to Kurdistan is being fiercely resisted by the Sunnis of Iraq in general and those of Mosul in particular. This explains the worsening situation for the Christians in Mosul. Moreover, there is the problem of language and nationality. The Kurds are not well disposed to the Arabs, whether Muslims or Christians. Thus an Arab speaking Christian like myself will not be welcome. Immigrants reaching Kurdistan have to register with local Kurdish authorities and become a member of an official Kurdish party in order to be treated as full citizens.
As for the solution of providing a 'Safe Haven' for the Christians in the plain of Mosul, I think that it is even more contentious. For such an enclave cannot be viable without western support and that will only fortify the claim of the Muslims that Christians are western sympathisers. Squeezed between the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs within Iraq and surrounded by Iran Turkey and Syria, can it ever survive? I think it will only be an easy dumping place for the Christians and a recipe for disaster. Those who ask for the creation of a Safe Haven are mainly the Assyrians. Leaders from other Christian denominations have spoken strongly against it. The Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, has repeatedly expressed the opinion of the majority Chaldeans that the only acceptable way for Christians is to live in a democratic Iraq.
The Christians of Iraq have always been at the heart of the intellectual and cultural formation of their country and have contributed to its stability and prosperity at different stages of its history. The Bishop of the Chaldean of Syria, Antoine Audo, stated in his talk at Heythrop College in 2007: "What a loss it is for Islam, the Western world, and for Israel, if the Christians of Iraq suddenly disappear". Should the minorities of the Middle East pay the price for what one Harvard professor Samuel Huntington called "the clash of civilization? Or should not their continuing presence through all the misadventures of history be a sign of hope, respect and justice for the whole world? Do the Christians of Iraq pose a challenge to the world beyond themselves?

Source: Parole de l'Orient 36 (2011) 311-317
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