Christianity in Iraq
|Christianity by country|
The Christians of Iraq are considered to be one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. The vast majority are Eastern Aramaic-speaking ethnic Assyrians; however, there is a very small community of Armenians, too.
In Iraq, Christians numbered about 1,500,000 in 2003, representing just over 6% of the population of the country down from 12% on 1947 in a population of 4.7 million. They numbered over 1.4 million in 1987 or 8% of the population. After the Iraq War, it was estimated that the number of Christians in Iraq had dropped to less than 450,000 by 2013 — with estimates as low as 200,000. Chaldean Catholics, formerly 'Nestorians' (Church of the East which denies they are Nestorian), are the majority among the Christians of Iraq.
Christians in Iraq are not allowed to proselytise, especially to Muslims. Muslims who change their faith to Christianity, are subject to societal and official pressure, which may lead to death penalty. However, there are cases in which a Muslim will adopt the Christian faith, secretly declaring his/her apostasy. In effect, they are practising Christians, but legally Muslims; thus, the statistics of Iraqi Christians does not include Muslim converts to Christianity.
Syrian Rite Churches
- Chaldean Catholic Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church
- Syriac Catholic Church
- Assyrian Church of the East
- Ancient Church of the East
The Churches of the Armenian rite
The other churches and communities
Followers of these churches are an ethnic mix known as Melkites:
- Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch
- Melkite Greek Catholic Church (Byzantine Rite)
- Roman Catholic Church (Roman rite)
- Protestant churches
Christianity was brought to iraq in the 1st century AD by Thomas the Apostle and Mar Addai (Thaddeus of Edessa) and his pupils Aggai and Mari. Thomas and Thaddeus belonged to the twelve Apostles. Iraq's Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrian communities are believed to be among the oldest in the world.
The Assyrian people adopted Christianity in the 1st century AD and north Iraq became the centre of Eastern Rite Christianity and Syriac literature from the 1st century AD until the Middle Ages. In the early centuries after the Arab Islamic conquest, native Assyrian (known as Ashuriyun by the Arabs) scholars and doctors played an influential role in Iraq, however, from the late 13th century AD through to the present time, Assyrian Christians have suffered both religious and ethnic persecution, including a number of massacres. Northern Iraq remained predominantly Assyrian, Eastern Aramaic speaking and Christian until the destructions of Tamerlane at the end of the 14th century. The Assyrian Church of the East has its origin in what is now South East Turkey and Assuristan (Sassanid Assyria). By the end of the 13th century there were twelve Nestorian dioceses in a strip from Peking to Samarkand. When the 14th-century Muslim warlord of Turco-Mongol descent, Timur (Tamerlane), conquered Persia, Mesopotamia and Syria, the civilian population was decimated. Timur had 70,000 Assyrian Christians beheaded in Tikrit, and 90,000 more in Baghdad. A new epoch began in the 17th century when Emir Afrasiyab of Basra allowed the Portuguese to build a church outside of the city. In the year of Iraq´s formal independence, 1933, the Iraqi military carried out large-scale massacres against the Assyrians (Simele massacre) which had supported the British colonial administration before.
In 1987, the last Iraqi census counted 1.4 million Christians. They were tolerated under the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, who even made one of them, Tariq Aziz, his deputy. However, persecution by Saddam Hussein continued against the Christians on an ethnic, cultural and racial level, as the vast majority are Mesopotamian Aramaic speaking. The Neo-Aramaic language and writing was repressed, the giving of Syriac Christian names or Akkadian/Assyro-Babylonian names forbidden (Tariq Aziz's given name is Mikhail Yuhanna, for example), and Saddam exploited religious differences between Iraqi Christians' denominations such as the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East. Over 2,000 Iraqi Christians were ethnically cleansed from their towns and villages under the al Anfal Campaign of 1988.
Prior to the Gulf War in 1991, Christians numbered one million in Iraq. The Baathist rule under Saddam Hussein kept anti-Christian violence under control but subjected some to "relocation programmes". Under this regime, the predominantly ethnically and linguistically distinct Assyrians were pressured to identify as Arabs. The Christian population fell to an estimated 800,000 during the 2003 Iraq War. Just under 1,500,000 Christians were alleged in the region prior to August 2014.
As of 21 June 2007, the UNHCR estimated that 2.2 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighbouring countries with a large majority of them Christians, and 2 million were displaced internally, with nearly 100,000 Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month. A 25 May 2007 article notes that in the past seven months only 69 people from Iraq were granted refugee status in the United States.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, violence against Christians rose, with reports of abduction, torture, bombings, and killings. Some Christians were pressured to convert to Islam under threat of death or expulsion, and women were ordered to wear Islamic dress.
In August 2004, International Christian Concern protested an attack by Islamists on Iraqi Christian churches that killed 11 people. In 2006, an Orthodox Christian priest, Boulos Iskander, was beheaded and mutilated despite payment of a ransom, and in 2008, the Assyrian clergyman Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of the Chaldean Catholic church in Mosul died after being abducted. In January 2008, bombs exploded outside nine churches.
In 2007, Chaldean Catholic priest Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni and subdeacons Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed were killed in the ancient city of Mosul. Ganni was driving with his three deacons when they were stopped and demanded to convert to Islam, when they refused they were shot. Ganni was the pastor of the Chaldean Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul and a graduate from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in Rome in 2003 with a licentiate in ecumenical theology. Six months later, the body of Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul, was found buried near Mosul. He was kidnapped on 29 February 2008 when his bodyguards and driver were killed.
In 2010, reports emerged in Mosul of people being stopped in the streets, asked for their identity cards, and shot if they had a first or last name indicating Assyrian or Christian origin. On 31 October 2010, 58 people, including 41 hostages and priests, were killed after an attack on an Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad. See October 2010 Baghdad church attack. A group affiliated to Al-Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq, stated that Iraq's indigenous Christians were a "legitimate target." In November, a series of bombings and mortar attacks targeted Assyrian Christian-majority areas of Baghdad.
Half the Christian population has allegedly fled en masse immolation in 243 cathedrals and additional churches and mass beheadings including of pregnant women and children, with an estimated 330,000 to Syria and smaller numbers to Jordan. Some fled to Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq and to neighboring countries, such as Iran. Christians who are too poor or unwilling to leave their ancient homeland have fled mainly to Arbil, particularly its Christian suburb of Ainkawa. 10,000 mainly Assyrian Iraqi Christians live in the UK led by Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, who has called on the government to accept more refugees.
Apart from emigration, the Iraqi Christians are also declining due to lower rates of birth and higher death rates than their Muslim compatriots. Also since the invasion of Iraq, Assyrians and Armenians have been targeted by Islamist extremist organisations and Arab nationalists.
During the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq issued a decree in July that all Christians in the area of its control must pay a special tax of approximately $470 per family, convert to Islam, or die. Many of them took refuge in nearby Kurdish-controlled regions of Iraq. Christian homes have been painted with the Arabic letter ن (nūn) for Nassarah (an Arabic word that means "Christian") and a declaration that they are the property of the Islamic State. On 18 July, the Jihadists seemed to have changed their minds and announced that all Christians would need to leave or be killed. Most of those who left had their valuable possessions stolen. According to Patriarch Louis Sako, there are no Christians remaining in Mosul for the first time in the nation's history.
Relations with non-Christians
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz's (birth name Michael Youkhanna) death sentence was not signed by the Iraqi president in 2010 because the president "sympathise[d] with Tariq Aziz because he is an Iraqi Christian." This also came after appeals from the Holy See not to carry out the sentence.
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- Documentary film 'The last Assyrians', a history of Aramaic speaking Christians
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