Christians in Iraq

Penny Young investigates the situation of one of the country’s less-commonly mentioned communities.

I had three wonderful days in Mosul before coming on here ... One of the nicest was among the old Christian villages ... Karakosh, the Syriac village, was especially fascinating in itself, because of its old churches dotted round. I was all alone and went about with most of the population, looking at the very primitive churches which had to be opened with huge keys.

Thus wrote the intrepid traveller, Freya Stark, sitting in a tent in northern Iraq on March 21st, 1930. Stark described the Christian women dressed in long gowns of pink, red and blue, a yellow and orange cloak tied on one shoulder. On their heads they wore veils and beads over a small turban with a band of gold coins. Their necks were swathed in a wimple with gold beads under the chin. ‘These visions were all out picnicking and playing in groups on the green grass outside the mud walls of the village,’ she went on in her letter.

Stark depicted an idyllic scene. If she returned to Iraq today, she would be con­fronted with a very different picture. Among the many horrors that have beset Iraq since the ill-advised Amer­ican and British invasion in 2003, at least half the Chris­tians have fled the country after finding themselves caught in a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’a and iden­tified with the West as Crusaders and infidels. Those clinging on in Iraq face forced conversion to Islam, torture, kidnap, the seizure of homes and property, rape and murder. An unknown number of churches and monasteries have been destroyed.

Iraq lost its ancient minor­ity Jewish population to emigration in the last quarter of the twentieth century after state persecution and killings. Now, in the first quarter of the twenty-first, it faces the loss of its long-established Christians as well as other linked minorities including the tiny Mandaean community in the south of the country.

It is thought that the Christian population of Iraq is one of the oldest in the world. In his book By the Waters of Babylon (1972) James Wellard hypothesizes that when St Peter referred to ‘the Church at Babylon’, he may have been referring to an actual Jewish Christian community in the region of the Mesopotamian city, similar to other Nazarene communities which were springing up all over the Roman Empire to the west. The word ‘church’ was figurative. The earliest dated church building to have been found in the world so far is at Dura Europos in Syria on the Euphrates close to today’s border with Iraq. The murals were painted between 232 and 256 AD, three quarters of a century before Constantine recog­nized Christianity.

Dr Sebastian Brock from the University of Oxford believes one can be reason­ably sure that Christianity had crossed into the Par­thian empire well before it had been replaced by the Sassanian empire (both Persian) c. 226 AD.

By the early fourth cen­tury, the Sassanian winter capital, Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the remains of which can be found to the south of Baghdad, had become the seat of the most important bishopric. The first half of the century also produced the first Syriac writer from Iraq whose work has survived. (Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic which was the language of vast areas of the ancient Near East.)

Many monasteries were built in the sixth century. Over the following two cen­turies, hundreds flourished in Iraq. In the late eighth century, the Abbasid caliphs relied on the expertise of the Syriac monks to translate Greek philosophical, medical and scientific texts into Arabic. It is likely that some came from the monastery of Mar Mattai, to the south-east of Mosul, by then the most important Syrian Orthodox monastery in Iraq and famous for its well-stocked library. Mar Mattai survives today, perched half way up a rocky mountain with an eagle’s view over the vast plains of Mesopotamia. It is still functioning as a monas­tery. It is uncertain how many monks are living there.

One of the most famous monasteries was that of Rabban Hormizd north of Mosul, named after its founder. The ruins can still be seen on a rock sticking out like the prow of a ship to the north of Al Qosh. It was abandoned in the nine­teenth century after serious raiding and a new monastery dedicated to the Lady of the Sown was founded in 1858 closer to Al Qosh. Unrest in northern Iraq in the middle of the twentieth century saw its rich library, around 41,000 priceless medieval volumes, some of them dating from the seventh century, trans­ferred to a monastery in the Dora suburb in the south of Baghdad for safe-keeping. Their fate is now uncertain.

Until recent years, Dora was predominantly Christian. Most families have been forced to leave by Sunni militants. The threats include the abandonment of Chris­tianity and conversion to Islam within twenty-four hours, the confiscation of property, veiling of women and the removal of the sign of the cross. Churches have been bombed and people murdered. Dora is one of the areas to have been walled off by US forces. One of their camps is set up inside the monastery.

The census for Iraq in 1987 counted 1.4 million Christians. People began to leave in the 1990s when the  sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein by the United Nations began to bite. Statistics are now hard to come by. It is thought that as few as 300,000 Christian Iraqis remain in the country.

At a recent seminar in the School for Oriental and African Studies, London, the Chal­dean Arch­bishop of Kirkuk, Luis Sako, said that the cultural, civil and religious fabric of Iraq was being destroyed. Dr Laila Al-Roomi, who is a Man­daean, warned that her sect faced ‘extinction’. The Man­daeans trace their history back to the Gnostic Chris­tians of the second and third centuries of lower Meso­potamia where they continue to live around Basra and Kut. Dr Al-Roomi is concerned, too, about the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking group, also linked to Christianity. ‘It could mean the end of all these communities in modern Iraq,’ she said. ‘They don’t have backers.’

On her travels in the 1930s, Freya Stark also visited the church of the monastery of Mar Behnam, twenty miles south of Mosul. She noted the ‘very lovely sculptured doors and interesting arches, one stone fitting into the other with perfect neatness.’

The monastery still sur­vives with its beautiful decor­ations. A Mongol inscription tells how they looted it in AD 1295. Today, Mar Behnam is still a working monastery. The question is for how much longer?

In May, I met Father Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic in Mosul. A few weeks later, just as this magazine was going to press, news arrived that he and three of his sub­deacons had been murdered. He foresaw this. When I met him, he had told me, ‘We are on the verge of collapse.

By Penny Young

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email