Displacing the Believers: The Grim Realities of Iraq's Beleaguered Christians

Editor's Note: This article continues Dr. Werthmuller's tour of Christian populations in the Middle East. See his reflections on the Arab Spring and on Christians in Egypt (Part 1 and Part 2). 

It should speak volumes about the plight of Christianity in Iraq that Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, the controversial head of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic community, recently warned about the situation in Syria by pointing to the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians over the last decade.

The statistics are sobering: between one-half and two-thirds of Iraq's nearly 1.5 million Christians have been displaced over the last decade, some internally and others to neighboring countries. Most of those Christian refugees fled more than Iraq's general turmoil: they escaped horrific, targeted violence by Islamic extremist groups and threats of more of the same. This places the Iraqi context at the forefront of anxieties among many of the Middle East's Christian minorities, who ask: "Can this happen to us?"

Rather than relegating them to a historical footnote or cautionary tale, however, we must remember that there yet remain hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians in their war-torn country and as refugees in surrounding countries, and they need our support and prayers more than ever.

In a strange twist of historical irony, Iraq lays claim to the oldest civilization in the world—Mesopotamia—and yet, as a modern nation-state, it is relatively young. It was one of a series of new states created by the League of Nations out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. In this case, the League granted authority to Great Britain over the Mandate of Mesopotamia in 1919, which it held until bestowing independence on an Iraqi monarchy in 1932. From the first, it was an awkwardly delineated territory tucked alongside other mandates (e.g., Transjordan) and between the struggling monarchies of Persia to the east and the Ottomans (later the Republic of Turkey) in the northwest.

The awkwardness of Iraq's demarcation was not random, however. The French had divided Lebanon from Syria in part to grant Maronite Catholics a Mediterranean enclave to counter a Muslim-majority Syria. In a parallel strategy, the British planned an overarching Iraqi state that would pool its vast economic resources and defuse the separate ambitions of Iraq's three major people groups: Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs mostly in the center, and Shi'ite Arabs—the most numerous community—predominant in the south.

This political background is crucial for understanding Iraq's Christian minorities, since Iraq from its inception was bound to identity politics and ethno-religious tensions, with only a shallow, tenuous sense of national character to hold these groups together.

Assyrians, like the neighboring Armenians, comprise a distinct people group with a close combination of ethnic and religious identity; they are also one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world, dating back to the first century. Several centuries ago, they divided into followers of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian (Nestorian) Church of the East, forming Iraq's largest and second-largest Christian sects, respectively. These communities now maintain distinct identities as well as ecclesiastical and doctrinal differences, but both follow Eastern Orthodox rites based in a Syriac liturgical tradition (a dialect of Aramaic, which Jesus spoke). Assyrian/Chaldeans were also among the first of Iraq's minorities to suffer under its shallow, tenuous nationalism.

By the time of Iraq's independence, the twentieth century had already been cruel to the Assyrians—75,000 to 150,000 of them died at the hands of Ottoman authorities and rival Kurds in the same wave of massacres that killed up to 1.5 million in the Armenian Genocide—and thus some of their leaders argued for the protection of Assyrian autonomy in the north of the country. In 1933, the weak monarchy pushed back against what it perceived as a threat to its fledgling independence from this upstart, British-allied group of Christians, by sending the Iraq army to subdue Assyrian militias.