The Christians of Iraq are considered to be one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. The vast majority of Iraqi Christians are indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking ethnic Assyrians. Non-Syriac Iraqi Christians are largely Arab Christians and Armenians, and a very small minority of Kurdish and Iraqi Turkmen Christians. Most present-day Christians are ethnically different from Kurds and they identify themselves as being separate peoples, of different origins and with distinct histories of their own. Syriac Christianity was first established in Mesopotamia, and the Church of the East and its successor churches were established in central-southern Iraq. Syriac Christianity and would eventually spread to becoming one of the most popular Christian churches in the Middle East and Fertile Crescent Region, and would spread as far as India and China. Iraq plays a rich and vital contribution to Christian history, and after Israel, Iraq has the most biblical history than any other country in the world. The patriarch Abraham was from Uruk, in southern Iraq, modern day Nasiriya, and Rebecca was from northwest Iraq. Additionally, Daniel lived in Iraq most of his life. The prophet Ezekiel was from southern Iraq and his shrine is located there. Shrines of Prophet Jonah, Saint George, and various other biblical prophets and saints are attributed to have been originally from Iraq. Adam and Eve are also widely thought to have hailed from Iraq, as the biblical Garden of Eden is largely attributed to have been located in southern Iraq. The number of Christians of Iraq is said to be at around 500,000-1.5 million, according to the EU Research Services on minorities in Iraq, although numbers vary from source to source due to the last Iraqi census having taken place more than 30 years ago. A census is scheduled to take place in 2020 in which the numbers of Christians in Iraq will be clarified.
In Iraq, Christians numbered about 1,500,000 in 2003, representing just over 6% of the population of 26 million (from 1.4 million or 8.5% of 16.5 million in 1987; and down from 12% in 1948 in a population of 4.8 million). Since then, it has been estimated that the number of Christians in Iraq have dropped to 500,000+. However, due to a lack of an official census, the number is difficult to estimate. The most widely followed denomination among Iraq Christians is the Chaldean Catholic Church. However, the Assyrian Church of the East plays a bold role in the demographics. Christians live primarily in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Erbil, Dohuk, Zakho and Kirkuk and in Assyrian towns and regions such as the Nineveh Plains in the north. Before the advent of Islam, the majority of Iraqis (Mesopotamians) followed Syriac Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Judaism or ancient Mesopotamian religions. There are about 60,000 Iraqi-Armenians who follow either Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholics. There are also several thousand Arab Christians who are either Greek Orthodox or Melkite Catholic, and they are largely concentrated in Baghdad.
During the period from 2013–2017, with ISIS rapidly sweeping through Iraq's western lands , Christians fled as they feared persecution by the terrorist organisation, as they were to ‘execute’ any person who did not believe in their Sunni sect. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to The nation's capital where they found refuge and adequate housing, some of whom have chosen to make Baghdad their new permanent home following the full defeat of ISIS in Iraq. Thousands have also fled to other parts of southern Iraq, such as the Shia-majority city of Najaf which housed thousands of Christians in holy Islamic shrines once they fled from ISIS, which sought to exterminate them. A large population have also returned to their homes en masse following the defeat of ISIS and were able to celebrate Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter in safety with the protection of the NPU and its allies.
- Syriac Orthodox Church
- Assyrian Church of the East
- Ancient Church of the East
- Syriac Catholic Church
- Chaldean Catholic Church
- Assyrian Evangelical Church
- Assyrian Pentecostal Church
Followers of these churches are an ethnic mix known as Melkites:
- Melkite Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Baghdad,
- Melkite Catholic Church under Patriarchal Exarchate of Iraq
Other churches and communities
Christianity was brought to Iraq in the 1st century 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 and Assyria in northern Iraq became the centre of Eastern Rite Christianity and Syriac literature from the 1st century until the Middle Ages. Christianity initially lived alongside Mesopotamian religion among the Assyrians, until the latter began to die out during the 4th century.
In the early centuries after the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th century, Assyria (also known as Athura and Assuristan) was dissolved by the Arabs as a geo-political entity, however native Assyrian (known as Ashuriyun by the Arabs) scholars and doctors played an influential role in Iraq.
In the period prior to the establishment of Abbasid rule in AD 750, pastoral Kurds moved into upper Mesopotamia from Persian Azerbaijan, taking advantage of an unstable situation. Cities in northern and northeastern ancient Assyria were raided and attacked by the Kurds of Persian Azerbaijan, "who killed, looted, and enslaved the indigenous population", and the Kurds were moving into various regions in east of ancient Assyria. The chronicler Ibn Hawqal spoke about the state to which the region of Shahrazoor had been reduced, describing it as a 'town, which was overpowered by the Kurds, and whose environs as far as Iraq had been enjoying prosperity'. Another contemporary source described the region of Adiabene thus: '[T]he plain of Hadyab was entirely inhabited by the Nestorians but the Kurds have occupied it and depopulated it of its inhabitants'. Later, the Seljuks invaded Mesopotamia with the support of Kurdish chieftains and tribes. They "destroyed whatever they encountered" and captured and enslaved women. Mosul, historically a Christian city, was repeatedly attacked. The historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that 'the Kurds spoiled and spread horror everywhere'. In time, Armenia and Assyria became "Kurdistan". From the late 13th century 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, when the ancient city of Ashur was finally abandoned by the Assyrians after a 4000-year history. Tamerlane rewarded the Kurds for their support by "settling them in the devastated regions, which until then had been inhabited by the followers of the Church of the East." 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.
In the 16th century, the Ottomans reinforced their eastern frontier with what they considered loyal Sunni Kurd tribes. They settled Kurdish tribes in these regions and in 1583 Sultan Murad IV "gave huge provinces to the Kurdish tribe of Mokri". According to Aboona, "many regions with numerous Assyrian and Armenian monuments and monasteries became completely populated by the Kurds after Chaldiran," and Kurdish historians wrote that "the land was cleared at this time, its indigenous inhabitants driven out by force". The Kurdish historian Ali al Qurani affirmed that Sarsink had "been an Assyrian town and that the Kurds who settled there were immigrants from Persian Azerbaijan." Phebe Marr noted that 'in the north too, many of the Kurdish tribes of Persia migrated to Iraq'. British traveler James Rich observed in northern Iraq the "rapid influx of Kurds from Persia... and that their advance never ceased". He noted that "some ten thousand families, comprising seventy thousand souls, were constantly moving across the border". Southgate also observed the "rapid advance and settlement of the Kurds from Persia into northern Iraq" around that time. Dr. Grant gave an eyewitness account, he stated: "Beth Garrnae (the region of Arbil-Kirkuk) once contained a large population of Nestorian Christians, they are now reduced to a few scattered villages... Within the last six years the Koords of Ravandoos and Amadia have successively swept over it.." A new epoch began in the 17th century when Emir Afrasiyab of Basra allowed the Portuguese to build a church outside of the city. During World War One the Assyrians of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest Iran suffered the Assyrian genocide which accounted for the deaths of up to 65% of the entire Assyrian population. 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 the early 1930s, the Iraqi Arab ministries disseminated leaflets among the Kurds calling them to join them to massacre Assyrians. This call appealed to Islamic convictions and united Arabs and Kurds against the infidel Christians. Shortly before the August 11 Simmele massacre in 1933, Kurds began a campaign of looting against Assyrian settlements. The Assyrians fled to Simele, where they were also persecuted. According to some studies, there were many accounts by witnesses of numerous atrocities perpetrated by Arabs and Kurds on Assyrian women.
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 Mesopotamian-Aramaic speaking Christians on an ethnic, cultural and racial level. The Neo-Aramaic language and writing was repressed, the giving of Syriac-Aramaic 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. This may be an undercount by half as seen in the 1987 census numbers. 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 2003.
As of 21 June 2007, the UNHCR estimated that 2.2 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighboring countries and 2 million were displaced internally, with nearly 100,000 Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month. Some of those refugees and IDPs were Christians. 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 after the destruction of 243 cathedrals and churches; and beheadings including of pregnant women and children. An estimated 330,000 went to Syria and smaller numbers to Jordan. Thousands 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 Erbil, 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.
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. But after Mosuls liberation in 2017 only 20 Christian families have returned so far. Many have instead moved to the liberated Christian towns or stayed in Iraqi Kurdistan for a new life to avoid persecution by Arabs.
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.
Christianity in Iraq
Almost all Iraqi Christians have fled from Iraqi Arab areas to the Kurdish-controlled areas. Today, the majority of Iraqi Christians live in Kurdish-controlled areas, most of them arrived as internally displaced people from Arab areas during different wars and conflicts between 2003 and 2016. According to the United Nations, Christians and Arabs, especially those who fled due to targeted attacks, reportedly do not face difficulties in entering the Kurdistan Region but have difficulties obtaining refugee status from the central government.
Iraqi Christians have been victim of executions, forced displacement campaigns, torture, violence and target of Sunni Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Since the 2003 Iraq War, Iraqi Christians have fled from the country and their population has collapsed under the democratic government. Majority of Christians have either fled to the Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad. A population project by the Shlama Foundation has estimated that there are about 150,000 Assyrian Christians remaining in Iraq as of July 2020. This is down from about 1,500,000 in the year 2003.
In 2003, Iraqi Christians were primary target of extremist Sunni Islamists. Many kidnapped Christians were forced to leave Christianity or tortured.
On August 1, 2004, a series of car bomb attacks took place during the Sunday evening Mass in churches of two Iraqi cities, Baghdad and Mosul killing and wounding a large number of Christians. Jordanian-Iraqi Sunni Arab Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was blamed for the attacks.
In 2006, an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was snatched off the streets of Sunni city of Mosul by a Sunni group that demanded a ransom. His body was later found, the priest's arms and legs had also been cut off.
In 2007, there were reports of a push to drive Christians out of the historically Christian suburb of Dora in southern Baghdad, with some Arab Muslims accusing the Christians of being allies of the Americans. A total number of 239 similar cases were registered by police between 2007 and 2009.
In 2008, a priest called Ragheed Ganni, was shot dead in his church along with three of his companions. At the same year, there were reports that Christian students are harassed.
In 2008, the charity Barnabas conducted research into 250 Iraqi Christian IDPs who had fled to the north of the country (Iraqi Kurdistan) to seek refugee status and found nearly half had witnessed attacks on churches or Christians, or been personally targeted by violence.
In 2009, the Kurdistan Regional Government reported that more than 40,000 Christians had moved from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul to the Iraqi Kurdistan cities. The reports also stated that a number of Christians families who are moving to the Iraqi Kurdistan is growing and they were providing support and financial assistance for 11,000 of those families, and some are employed by the KRG.
In 2011, Sunni extremists assassinated a Christian randomly using sniper rifles. Two months before the incident, 2 Christians had been shot for unknown reasons in Baghdad and 2 other Christians had been shot by a Sunni jihadist in Mosul.
On 30 May 2011, a Christian man was beheaded by a Sunni man in Mosul.
On 2 August 2011, a Catholic church was bombed by Sunni extremists in Turkmen area of Kirkuk, wounding more than 23 Christians.
On 15 August 2011, a church was bombed by al-Qaeda in Kirkuk center.
On November 24, 2013 in Mosul, a Christian journalist was gunned down in a targeted attack.
On 25 December 2013 in Baghdad, Sunni extremists targeted a market in a Christian area, killing at least eleven patrons in two blasts.
On 25 December 2013 in Baghdad, over two dozen innocents outside a Catholic church were massacred by Sunni bombers.
In 2014, during the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) ordered all Christians in the area of its control, where Iraqi Army collapsed, to pay a special tax of approximately $470 per family, convert to Sunni Islam, or die. Many of them took refuge in nearby Kurdish and Shia controlled regions of Iraq.
Kurdification of ethnic Iraqi Chaldo-Assyrians
Some Assyrians activists claim they have suffered not only from Arabization but also Kurdification in Iraqi Kurdistan, mainly in KDP-controlled areas. Assyrian activist have claimed that the number of Christians live in Iraqi Kurdistan have reduced. [note 1] It is known that the Iraqi Kurdistan have accepted more than 200,000 Christians refugees and IDPs who had fled from Arab areas between 2012 and 2016. It is also known that security officers and authorities who work for Barzani tribe and his political party, the KDP, have frequently abused some local Christians and IDPs for not being loyal "enough" to them.
There have been also claims by Assyrian organizations that Kurdistan Regional Government have hindered international aid for local Christian Assyrians and tried to prevent Aramaic schools. However, the annual report by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) states that the KRG has rebuilt and renovated over 20 Christian churches in the Region and reconstructed more than 105 destroyed Christian villages.
Additionally, several reports have been written about those Christians who do not get "political" representation and therefore do not succeed in expanding their schools, and are shut out from all but the most basic funding. This has been denied by Kurdish authorities. There are currently 5 Christian members of parliament in Iraqi Kurdistan parliament. Assyrians who have arrived as internally displaced persons to the Iraqi Kurdistan have demanded more rights from the KRG and this has led to the serious disputes. In 2014, Assyrians International News Agency stated:
- Institutions and government agencies in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region use both languages. The Constitution also stipulates that Turkmen and Syriac are official languages in the administrative units where native speakers of these languages comprise a significant proportion of the population (a law has also included the Armenian language alongside Turkmen and Syriac). The Constitution notes that any region or province can adopt an additional language as a "local official language" if the majority of the region or province's residents agree to this in a general referendum.
Some have also complained that adults have to join the KDP party in KDP-majority areas of Iraqi Kurdistan in order to be granted employment and that KDP representatives are allowed to settle in Assyrian villages. Some interviewed Christian IDPs had told that Arabs, Kurds and Islamists are fully aware that Assyrians have no means of protection in the face of attacks. In 2005, the Department of State's 2005 Human Rights Country Report for Iraq stated in the January elections, there have been reports that many of the mostly non-Muslim residents on the Nineveh Plain were unable to vote and incidents of voter fraud and intimidation occurred during the Iraq War. It was reported that Kurdish security forces also "prevented" ballot boxes to pass to some Christian villages fearing that they will support the central Iraqi government. Some cases of illegal land and property seizures of Assyrian Christian lands by KDP members were also claimed.
Michael Youash, an Assyrian expert, had stated in his report that the Iraqi Kurdistan government was unable to provide safe heaven for all Christians. He explained this by saying that the KDP publicizes that tens of thousands of Assyrian Christian families are coming to the safety of the north (Kurdish areas) from Arab areas, but "hundreds of thousands" Christians are leaving the country(Iraq) entirely. He claims that this is directly connected to the problems of "illegal land seizures". On other hand, Christians seek autonomous community inside of Iraqi Kurdistan.
There have been reports that Kurdish security forces have also committed abuses against some Christians in northern Iraq during the Iraq War of 2003. These included threats and intimidation to detentions and torture. In 1992, Assyrians who supported Iraqi dictator Saddam published a communiqué, which warned against the continuous process of Kurdification in northern Iraq which said: "The Kurdish leadership, and in a well-planned program, had begun to settle Kurds and in large numbers around Assyrian regions like Sarsank, Barwari Bala and others. They claimed that Kurdish housing project was naturally to change the demographic, economic, and civic structure of the Christian regions in only few short years; a process that forced the Christian to emigrate as the vacant homes were overtaken by 'the Kurds'." Francis Yusuf Shabo was an Assyrian Christian politician who dealt with complaints by Assyrian Christians regarding villages from which they had been forcibly evicted during the Arabization and subsequently resettled by Arabs and Kurds.
Human Rights Watch reported that there have been disputes between some Kurds and minorities, including Christians about lands. The Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein's arabization campaign, who have returned to their villages, have had deep issues with local people (including Christians) who they accused of supporting Saddam's genocidal campaign against them during the Al-Anfal campaign. According to the HRW, minorities in those disputed villages have been victimized by Kurdish authorities’ heavy handed tactics, "including arbitrary arrests and detentions, and intimidation, directed at anyone resistant to Kurdish expansionist plans". These disputes have created an opening for Sunni Arab extremists, who continue their campaign of killing minorities, especially religious Christian minorities. HRW reported that to consolidate their (Kurdish) grip on Nineveh area and to facilitate its incorporation into the Kurdistan Region, Kurdish authorities in Nineveh have embarked on a two-pronged strategy: they have offered minorities of Nineveh inducements while simultaneously wielding repression in order to keep them in tow. The goal of these tactics have been believed to be to push Shabak and Yazidi communities to identify as ethnic Kurds, and for Christians to abide by the Kurdish government's plan of securing a Kurdish victory in any referendum concerning the future of the disputed territories. Kurdish authorities have tried to win favor with the minority communities by spending millions of Iraqi dinars to build a pro-Kurdish system of patronage in minority communities, making them wealthier, financing alternative civil society organizations to compete with, undermine, and challenge the authority of established groups, many of which oppose Kurdish rule. The KRG also funds private militias created ostensibly to protect minority communities from outside violence, in which Iraqi authorities have failed, but which mainly serve to entrench Kurdish influence. Finally, the Kurdish leadership has enriched the coffers of Christian and Yazidi religious leaders, and paid for expensive new places of worship in order to win over minority religious establishments.
In 2009, during the Iraq War, HRW stated that "KRG authorities have relied on intimidation, threats, and arbitrary arrests and detentions, more than actual violence, in their efforts to secure support of minority communities for their agenda regarding the disputed territories. A Chaldo-Assyrian leader described the Kurdish campaign to Human Rights Watch as “the overarching, omnipresent reach of a highly effective and authoritarian regime that has much of the population under control through fear.
During the 2011 Dohuk riots, a group of Kurdish and Arab radical Islamists attacked properties of Christians, Yazidis and non-Muslim Kurds. Attackers were instigated by Friday prayers' sermons of some radical clerics who had come from other parts of Iraq.
According to Youash Michael, Peshmerga forces controlled the security in the Nineveh Plain in 2008, allowing the KDP to deny the minorities of the Nineveh Plain a chance to express their will electorally. He also claimed that according to two refugees he interviewed, the "Kurds" had seized their lands and the Kurdistan Regional Government would not implement any decisions requiring the return of land to "original Assyrian inhabitants".
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