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Blog: In Iraq, Ancient Christian Communities Are Being Destroyed

Jul 08, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

Christians in Iraq are one of the oldest surviving continuous Christian communities in the world. The vast majority are Aramaic-speaking Assyrians, Armenians, Arabs, Kurds and Turcoman. These are the lands in which Jesus’s apostles and their disciples made some of the first Christian converts. In an interview in Christian Today (July 2, 2014), Iraq’s leading bishop, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I. Sako of Baghdad lamented, “We are losing our community. If Christian life in Iraq comes to an end, this will be a hiatus in our history … the future of Iraq’s Christians is under threat.” Like Iraq’s ancient Jewish community before them, the world’s oldest Christian community may soon cease to exist, due to the exodus to Iraqi Kurdistan (on the cusp of declaring their independence) and to Jordan.

Christians numbered over 1.5 million in 2003, representing over 5% of the population, and an even higher percentage in 1987 (about 8% of the population). Yet, in 2013, the number of Christians had dropped to less than 450,000 and now in July 2014, they are even less. No one is quite sure exactly how many are left in Iraq because the situation, especially around Mosul (historically known as Nineveh), where many Christians live, is so chaotic. The terrorist group, known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL, also called ISIS), has imposed strict Islamic law and prohibitions on the practice of Christianity, according to the Associated Press.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians were among those targeted by Islamic extremists. Reports of abductions, torture, bombings of churches, unofficial pogroms, mob violence and killings rose among the Christian population. Christians were pressured to convert to Islam under threat of death or expulsion and women were ordered in many communities to wear Islamic dress. Several prominent priests, ministers and bishops were murdered between 2004 and 2013. The number of churches in Iraq has declined to less than 57 from over 300 before 2003, as Christians fled to Syria, Jordan and other countries.

Many Iraqi Christians have for centuries lived in the Nineveh Plains in the North and especially in the city of Mosul and its surrounding towns and villages. It is precisely this area that has recently been captured by ISIL. The Tablet, a British Catholic newsweekly, described a scene of chaos and devastation, with churches being looted and burned, people fleeing for their lives, and tanks captured from Iraqi forces moving into Christian villages and causing total carnage. Facing total war, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Amel Nona said his city was now at “the mercy of the attackers.”

Britain’s Catholic Herald said on Friday, June 27, 2014: “This is the final scene in the grotesque, theatrical de