Another dangerous Christmas in Iraq

ChristmasParadeInIraqTimes continue to be tough for Christians who live and who attempt to worship in Iraq. As you would expect, several mainstream news outlets used Christmas as a hook for updated reports about this issue, which touches at the heart of human-rights concerns about the plight of religious minorities in Iraq.

How tough did things get this Christmas? Here’s the top of a Washington Post report on the subject:

Christians in Iraq are preparing for a muted holiday season, with one bishop in the southern city of Basra calling for a ban on public festivities while other congregations across the country have canceled services and cautioned worshipers to keep their celebrations private.

The Chaldean bishop of Basra, Imad al-Banna, is asking Christians “not to display their joy, not to publicly celebrate the feast of Nativity” to avoid offending Iraq’s Shiite community, whose Ashura holiday falls two days after Christmas this year. According to Louis Sako, chief archbishop of Kirkuk for the Chaldean Christians, a Catholic sect that originated in Iraq, none of the northern archdiocese’s nine churches has scheduled a Christmas Mass this year.

“This is the first time we have had to cancel our celebrations,” he said.

Conditions continue to worsen for the Christian minority there and the report has the sad numbers to illustrate that. Here’s a sample:

Hundreds of thousands of Christians remain in Iraq, but many live in isolated enclaves, according to church officials. … (The) Chaldean archbishop, said that 10,000 Christians have fled Kirkuk in the past three months, and church officials in Basra have reported that the Christian community there has halved to about 2,500 people because of militia attacks.

The United Nations reported over the summer that 12,000 Christians had left Mosul and recently called for a “redoubling of efforts” to protect the besieged minority. Many Christian families have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where church services and festivities are held with no apparent security problems.

You can read many of the same facts in this Los Angeles Times report, as well, which includes details from Dec. 25th events.

The news is especially bleak since there were signs of hope not that long ago. Thus, we read:

Only months ago, there was optimism that Iraq might be on the verge of stability, but after weeks of rising bloodshed, many churches closed their doors … or hosted few guests for a late-afternoon Christmas Eve Mass.

Most Christians fled Baghdad in 2006 and ’07 at the height of the sectarian violence when Islamic militants branded them U.S. collaborators, attacked their churches and gave them an ultimatum to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax. A year ago, some returned triumphantly to their neighborhoods. But now they again are alarmed by the security situation in the city and nervous about drawing attention to themselves.

I really only have one concern about these reports, which are gripping — but incomplete.

To see what I am talking about, click here.

You would think, if you read the Christmas news reports, that all Christians in Iraq are in Eastern Catholic churches linked to Rome, such as the Chaldeans. Let me state right up front that it is understandable that these larger groups, especially those with ties to the West, would dominate reports in Western media.

Still, are there no Protestants in Iraq? There used to be a few. What about the Orthodox Christians, in a number of different Eastern and even Oriental traditions? There are Orthodox Christians in the Middle East (think Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, for example) who continue to celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, according to the ancient Julian calendar. Are they being forced to close their doors this year, as well?

Again, I understand that the Chaldeans are the dominant church. Still, I think it would have been good to include some material on how the current crisis is affecting other bodies. Are some being hurt worse than others?

Just asking. Yes, as an Orthodox Christian I admit that I am sensitive on this issue, in large part because of the years I spent worshiping in an overwhelmingly Arab parish in South Florida. All of the Christians in the Middle East feel abandoned and the realities on the ground are quite complex and, yes, they deserve coverage.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    At least some Christians being terrorized by Moslems are getting some coverage.
    I just saw a story in a religious newspaper that covers a lot of the violence against Christians around the world that the MSM fastidiously ignores.
    In this case in Pakistan in November Moslem militants blew up 3 girls’ schools in Pakistan’s Khyber District. The report states that since 2007 HUNDREDS of such attacks have been carried out on girls’ schools by Moslems seeking to enforce sharia (Islamic) law. Coverage here??????
    Consequently followers of the MSM only for news are easily gulled into accepting the phrase for Islam: “Religion of peace.”

  • Nancy Reyes

    Well, during the Saddam Hussein regieme, Christians were given “freedom”…many served in his cabinet (e.g. Tariq Aziz)…

    So some of the “persecution” might be payback…i.e.personal feuds.

    Then there is the question of who is going after them. Sunni/Saddam supporters turned terrorists? Or Shiite hit squads (Paid for and given explosives from Iran)?

    Remember, terrorists go for headlines, so hit those who the press will pay attention to…

  • Julia

    chief archbishop of Kirkuk for the Chaldean Christians, a Catholic sect

    I’m sure there is no “chief” archbishop in Kirkuk – there is only one for the Chaldean Catholics and maybe another for Orthodox. The article very messily refers to Assyrian Christians, without distinguishing between Orthodox and Catholics. I don’t think there are any Chaldean Orthodox, but there are Assyrian Orthodox as well as Catholics.

    Checking around it appears that there are Iraqi Christians connected to the following groups. Some groups overlap with those centered in Syria or Lebanon. I may have missed a few:

    Syrian Church of Antioch (Orthodox)
    Ancient Church of the East
    Assyrian Apostolic Church of the East
    Assyrian Catholic Church
    Syrian Catholic Church
    Syrian Melkite Catholic Church
    Syrian Maronite Catholic Church
    Chaldean Catholic Church

    The distinction between Syrian and Assyrian is one invented by Europeans, I understand – both are Aramaeans speaking Aramaic, as do the Chaldeans.

    There was also a split between the folks in the West of Iraq influenced by the Syrians who were aligned with Antioch and those in the East influenced by Persia who didn’t want a leader who was a Roman citizen and so split off many centuries ago. Some of these church groups have changed names over time, so some church names listed might be duplications.

    I didn’t find any good articles on the Protestant presence, but I know there is an Anglican bishop in Baghdad who is often the subject of stories in The Times (of London). And one website says the former “Nestorians” who didn’t convert to the Catholic Church eventually became Anglicans.

    Very complicated. Although the sources I found all said that most Iraqi Christians are Chaldean Catholics, there are many other groups, many of whom are different kinds of Orthodox.

  • Samn!

    Actually, there are very, very, very few Christians in Iraq who celebrate Christmas January 7th. The relatively few (Chalcedonian) Orthodox in Iraq are under the Patriarchate of Antioch and so are on the New Calendar, as is the somewhat more numerous Syriac Orthodox (Jacobite) Church. The second largest group of Christians in the country, the Assyrian Church of the East is also on the New Calendar, but they do have an old-calendarist breakaway group called the Ancient Church of the East. The largest group in Iraq to celebrate Christmas in January is probably the Armenians, who combine the feasts of Theophany (Epiphany) and Christmas, which is actually the oldest practice.

  • kristy

    You know what? Samn! answered one of the questions that I had upon reading this. I suppose you’d have to have some understanding of the complexity of Middle Eastern Christianity, and the variety of traditions to care about it, but it is good for us to know these things, so the connections can be made. Thanks.

  • Peter

    It would be interesting for a reporter to ask the religious conservative neocons who supported the Iraq war how they feel about their efforts, now that Christianity is more under attack than it was before their war on terrorism.

  • Julia


    I think this horrific result for Christians who were in Iraq before Islam even existed was the main impetus for the Pope’s objections at the start of the Iraqi War. Tariq Aziz went to Rome to confer with the Pope and probably forecast this result.


    I didn’t know there were any Armenians in Iraq. And I didn’t realize that many Orthodox had adopted the new calendar.

    Learn a lot at this blog. Thanks.

  • Julia

    One question for Samn! if he or she is still reading.

    Do the Iraqi’s who are descended from the Aramaeans and other indegenous groups consider themselves Arab? It was my understanding that they eventually adopted the Arabic language, but continued the ancient languages in their liturgies. The MSM when it mentions the Christians calls them Arabs; are they?

  • Samn!

    It’s complicated…… As a matter of fact, both the Assyrian/Chaldean (Nestorian) and Syriac Orthodox (Jacobite) churches had converted the major Arab tribes of Syria and Mesopotamia (the Lakhmids and the Ghassanids, respectively) in pre-Islamic times, though the mainstream of their churches only came to be arabized in the 9th and 10th centuries. After the devastation caused by the Mongol’s conversion to Islam in the late 13th century, both churches were reduced to basically Syriac-speaking rumps…

    In colonial times, both Catholic and Anglican missionaries to these churches emphasized their putative ties to the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, thus their getting called “Assyrian” and “Chaldean”. In post-colonial times, Assyrian (or Chaldean or Syriac) nationalism has been a very contentious thing, especially regarding the names they use to self identify. If you look through Zenda magazine online, you can get a feel for the mindset….

    So basically, the Syriac-speaking churches don’t tend to have an Arab identity. On the other hand, the Greek Orthodox (that is Rum Orthodox) in Lebanon/Syria and Palestine tend to be the most stridently Arab-identified of all the Christian groups, partially as a counterweight to francophile Maronite particularism and Islamic nationalism– it was this community that originated both the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party and the early Baath.

    To illustrate how things have historically worked (and still sometimes work) among Christians in Northern Iraq, I’ve met Iraqi refugees in Damascus who spoke to me in Arabic, but speak one of several mutually-unintelligible dialects of Syriac natively, and use Armenian to communicate with other Christians who speak other Syriac dialects…. the Middle East is a very complicated place once you peel back its Islamic superstratum!

  • Julia


    I’m saving your remarks for future reference.
    It’s even more complicated than I thought.