Will Christianity disappear from the Middle East?

Feb 17, 2020 | Great job, Rebuilding of Qaraqosh

Looking at the current situation in Iraq, we can assume that within the next two decades this is exactly what is going to happen.

The centuries-long history and presence of Christianity in these territories seemed to be lasting and imperishable. We are talking about a land where everything began. Today, seeing a huge Christian depopulation of this region, we are witnessing the biggest crisis of Christianity in our times.
However, this crisis has not been caused by the faithful leaving the Church. On the contrary. It has been caused by persecution, murders, and constant pressure resulting in mass emigration that is happening before our eyes. The Christians I know take their faith very seriously. It is their refuge in difficult times, but also a symbol of bravery, as many in the Middle East have given their life for the cross.

Between the Euphrates and Tigris

Their history goes back to ancient times. The Assyrians created a powerful imperium stretching from the Persian Gulf and through Cyprus reaching Turkey in the north and Egypt in the west. They were a warrior people, but they also developed a sophisticated culture and art. In the last Assyrian capital, namely Nineveh, a library was created in the 7th century BC that according to estimates held 30,000 items. The imperium collapsed after it was conquered by the Babylonians. The Assyrians did not manage to rebuild its greatness and the region was successively passed from hand to hand.

In the 1st and 2nd century AD, Christianity reached two centers inhabited by the Assyrians since the collapse of their imperium. Today, both of these places are located in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to some legends, this is where the Three Wise Men, commemorated on the 6th of January, came from. Persecution started with the intellectual and cultural development of the Assyrians and has lasted until today.

Nineveh in the fire

The Nineveh region derives its name from an ancient town – today it is used as the official name of an Iraqi province. Despite the fact that Christians are not a majority in the Nineveh anymore, the region remains their largest settlement in Iraq. The town of Qaraqosh – or Baghdeda, as it is called by contemporary Assyrians – was the largest Christian town in Iraq until 2014, with over 50,000 inhabitants. 60-70% of them have returned. However, before I write about the current situation of Christians in Iraq, I would like to say a little bit about them and the persecution campaign launched against them.

I will start from the 20th century, as that was a period of time when Iraq underwent radical changes. During the First World War a massacre took place, known as ‘Seyfo’. In the period 1914 – 1918, the Ottoman Empire slaughtered between 500,000 and 700,000 Assyrians. At the same time, the Turks carried out what is known as the Armenian genocide. The European countries were busy with their own conflicts, allowing those massacres to go unnoticed. It needs to be remembered that to this day Turkey denies committing a genocide

After the British conquered Iraq, which at the time constituted a part of the Ottoman Empire, a process of independent state formation began. It was a difficult time for the Christians who often fell victim to internal conflicts. In 1933, unhappy with the government the Assyrians started a rebellion. It was brutally suppressed by the authorities which committed one of the least known religious crimes. It was carried out mainly by the Christians’ Kurdish neighbors instigated by the government in Baghdad. Every time when we go to Khanke to meet our friends and visit the Ourbridge center, we drive by Semel. It is a small, quiet town, where there is almost no trace left of the Assyrians that used to live there.
During Saddam Hussein’s and the Ba’ath Party’s rule, persecution of the Iraqi Christians was less widespread. They were drafted into the army and promoted to the highest ranks. They also had their own representatives in the local government. The dictator was trying to gain their support in his anti-Kurdish internal politics. Christmas was a national holiday and the construction of churches was totally legal. Some of them were even funded by Saddam. However, those were not selfless gestures. After a failed attempt to garner the Assyrians on his side, he was trying to diminish their national identity in favor of their religious identity.

So who are the Assyrians?

I use the terms ‘Assyrians’ and ‘Christians’ interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, it would be simplistic to say so, hence I’m trying to explain the similarities and differences. The Assyrians, as I mentioned at the beginning, are descendants of an ancient people that built an empire long before Christ. After Christianity was accepted in those territories, there was no Assyrian state anymore, but the Assyrian people remained. Today, religion is the basis of their identity, which also consists of such elements as separate language, traditions, culture, and even clothing. It is worth noting that the Assyrians speak neo-Aramaic – a contemporary version of the language of Jesus Christ.

It could be said that all Assyrians are Christians but not all Christians are Assyrians, and that would be close to the truth. The non-Arab Iraqi Muslims are mainly Assyrians who converted to Islam in the 7th century AD. They do not call themselves Assyrians, which proves that Christian belief and Assyrian national identity have for centuries been going hand in hand. I should also mention that Christianity in Iraq includes several denominations. There are Catholics, Protestants, but mainly followers of the so-called Eastern Churches, namely the Chaldean Church, the Syriac Catholic Church as well as several Orthodox denominations. But the Iraqi Christians avoid divisions. They are such a small minority in comparison to Muslims that they simply describe themselves as Christians. Having in mind there are less than 300,000 of them in Iraq, various denominations are insignificant.

21st Century

At the beginning of the new century persecution against Christians rapidly increased. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was meant to bring peace. However, the exact opposite happened. Numerous Shia and Sunni militant groups emerged to fight the occupiers, but they also fought between themselves. That was when organizations that gave birth to ISIS were created. The Christians found themselves in the center of those upheavals. Among many assaults organized by the militants against Christians were a 2004 attack on five churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul, a 2010 attack on a cathedral in Baghdad, and two bombings on Christmas Day in 2013. A mass exodus of more than 20,000 Christians from Mosul took place between 2008 and 2009. The peak of persecution was reached in June and July 2014, when the so-called Islamic State took over towns in the Nineveh Plains. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people left their homes, their towns razed to the ground.

In the 90s, 1.2 million Christians were living in Iraq. Before the US invasion that number grew to 1,5 million. Today we are talking about 250,000 – 300,000 Christians, which means that their number has decreased by 80% in merely just over a decade. Terrorist attacks, mass killings and persecution have led mass emigration to Europe, the US, Australia, or Canada.
There is practically no one who does not have family in another country. Everyone at some point has thought about leaving. Constant pressure causes anxiety and fear for the future. What can we do? There are some things over which we have no control. We are unable to protect these people from danger of terrorist attacks. These are still happening, and even though we rarely hear about them, they still pose real threat. But we can help them improve their economic situation.

A shop, a workshop, or a small business – of which we have already opened almost sixty – becomes a source of income for one family. Such a family often consists of 8-10 members who receive a chance to become independent. Each such case means that these people have decided to stay and continue living in the land of their ancestors. If more such business are created, there is a chance that we can save the day.

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