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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 death of Iraqi Christianity. A people who once numbered more than a million, who just a decade ago enjoyed the use of more than 300 blossoming churches, now faces extinction.” The ancient monastery of Mar Behnam as well as many other churches have fallen into the hands of the insurgents and numerous Christians have been killed. Archbishop Amel Nona worried that the threats which caused Christians to flee might mean that they will never return, especially in light of the fact that from ISIL-controlled regions in Syria have come reports of Christians being forced to pay the Islamic Jaziya tax and pressure to convert to Islam.

The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Irbil told Vatican Radio that “it is not just about being a Christian, it is about being a human being and being a minority,” referring also to the many other minorities within Iraq who have no protection against either revenge killings or persecution from those in power.

The U.S. certainly bears some responsibility (at least was complicit) in this catastrophe, since our country oversaw the creation of Iraq’s postwar government and did little to protect minority faiths. Even church leaders outside the Middle East are afraid to speak out, partly because they fear precipitating more violence. After Pope Benedict XVI quoted an ancient criticism of Islam in an academic speech in Germany, seven Christian churches were fire-bombed.

Nor is Mosul the only Iraqi city, or the Nineveh Plains the only area under siege. The Vatican Radio reports that a mood of fear in Baghdad after the rapid advance of ISIL and its allies hovers over all Christians who have already hunkered down since 2003. The Sunni militants have already seized several cities south of Mosul and north of Baghdad and have vowed to march to Baghdad.  Many Christians living in Baghdad have fled the city for the Kurdish enclave in the north, other areas of Iraq or even Jordan and beyond because they fear a civil war. “Caritas Iraq” and many other charitable nonprofits are mobilizing their resources to help care for the tens of thousands of displaced people, including Christians, who are forced to flee their homes in fear of the Islamic militants.

NETWORK has received emails describing the pain, suffering and uncertainty of what lies ahead for the Christian communities in Iraq. The news from our friends, the Dominican Sisters of Iraq, is very distressing. We learned that they were forced to flee from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian community in Iraq just east of Mosul, where they were building a new Motherhouse. The Sisters and many other Christians have been caught in the crossfire between ISIL (and their tribal allies) and the Peshmerga, armed Kurdish fighters claiming the villages near but outside their current borders. To the extent they have been able, the Sisters have been helping some people who had nowhere to go. So many have next to nothing. The Church is providing food and mattresses for them to sleep on in nearby schools that have opened their doors to them. The situation is fraught with danger and the people are upset that the media seem to have forgotten them.

For many Americans, the human and financial cost of our eight-year war in Iraq has not been recognized. But for Iraq’s Christians, the personal cost of that war and now its aftermath have been far too great. As we can see from the foregoing, minorities in Iraq, especially Christians, live in a culture of fear and violence rather than a culture of relationship and community. If Christians are to feel secure in the land of their fathers and mothers they must be able to live and thrive in a peaceful and just society, one where human rights are defended. While many Americans are prepared to use the violence of war to wreak vengeance on the Islamic militants, I would rather advocate the peaceful diplomatic approach of mediating between the peoples affected and the militants, for the time will come when the people living in these regions will demand not only their economic wellbeing, but also their basic human rights. Do we really want to see the continuation of targeted drone strikes throughout this war-torn country? Our plea should be for peace and human rights.