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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.

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