Iraqi Christians: A Complicated Past and Uncertain Future
Much of the focus around peace in the Middle East revolves around conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians. However, day-to-day discrimination and persecution against Christians in other middle eastern countries, such as Iraq, also paint a picture of instability and unrest.
Iraq’s Significant Christian History
Iraq brings a wealth of history regarding Christianity in the Middle East. While many people perceive Iraq as a predominately Muslim country, that was not always the case. Although Iraqi Christians have not been in the majority of the population since the 7th-century, they constitute a significant and culturally influential minority.
Since a few hundred years after Christ, Christians have been in Iraq, tracing their history back to the first century when Assyrian Christianity was introduced. Iraqi Christians make up one of the world’s oldest continuous Christian populations.
Historically, they could be found throughout the country, although the heaviest concentration is in Northern Iraq. They believe their connection to this land reaches back before Christianity. Christianity is their identity and way of forming their communities, but they also see themselves as a people and nation. That connection to a national identity reaches back before Christianity and forms the basis of their claim to being the original people of Iraq.
The Iraqi Christian Community
Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the Pope’s authority. They are an ancient people, some of whom still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The Chaldean Catholic community’s identity is inextricably tied to the land due to their belief that their homeland is at the heart of what it means to be a Chaldean Catholic.
The other significant community is the Assyrians, the descendants of the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylonia. Assyrians also belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Church, and various other Protestant denominations. They embraced Christianity in the 1st Century AD, and their Ancient Church of the East is believed to be the oldest in Iraq. They scattered throughout the Middle East after their empires collapsed in the 6th and 7th centuries BC.
Persecution of Christians is Not New in Iraq
A brief review of Christians’ plight in Iraq confirms that Christian persecution has a long and sad history.
Conquests of large Christian communities came about with the rise of Islamic rule in the seventh century in the Middle East. Christian practices were limited, forbidding them to display the cross on churches or ring a bell to summon worshipers. Christians were viewed as inferior to Muslims and were required to pay a tax.
- The 20th Century
The 20th century included both hard times and relatively peaceful periods for Iraqi Christians.
In 1932, when Iraq became independent, large-scale massacres of Assyrians were carried out in retaliation for their collaboration with Britain, the country’s former colonial power.
Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi Christians numbered about one million. By the time of the US-led invasion in 2003, that figure fell to about 800,000. Since then, the numbers are thought to have fallen dramatically. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions, many Iraqi Christians, who had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors for decades, left to join other family members in the West.
The secular government of Saddam Hussein did not persecute Christians in the way it did the Kurds and some Shia areas. Still, it did subject some Christian communities to “relocation programs.”
The rise of some Christians to high-level government positions during the Saddam Hussein regime, most notably Deputy Prime Minister Triq Aziz, provided relief from anti-Christian violence.
- The 21st Century
By 2014, shortly before the rise of ISIS, over eight hundred thousand of Iraq’s Christians had fled abroad, with many making new homes in the United States and Western Europe.
The establishment of the ISIS Caliphate drove the few remaining Christians out of the region to avoid living under a regime that gave them an ultimatum: pay a special tax for non-believers or leave or be killed. Most chose to leave and head to the Kurdish north.
Hope prevailed in December 2020, when the Iraqi parliament unanimously passed a law officially declaring Christmas a national holiday, with annual frequency. Although it was pronounced a one-time holiday in 2008, the new law makes it permanent.
Although ISIS no longer has a stranglehold over the country, the legacy of Christian persecution continues. Islamic extremists remain active in Iraq, attacking and kidnapping Christians. The government discriminates against Christians in various contexts, from the workplace to checkpoints, and blasphemy laws can be used against those trying to spread the gospel.
Pressure and threats from extended family members, clan leaders, and society often force Christians to keep their faith secret. Christian converts also risk losing inheritance rights or the right to marry—and are forbidden to marry Christians, as the law still considers them Muslim.
Iraq’s Conflicting Government Directive
Iraq’s Constitution establishes Islam as its official religion and requires that no law contradict Islam. Yet, religious freedom is also guaranteed due to Iraq’s attempt at a federal parliamentary Islamic democracy founded on pluralism’s ideals.
Join Us to Support Religious Freedom in Iraq
Churches for Middle East Peace encourage peaceful resolutions to Iraqi Christians’ treatment and throughout the Middle East. We recognize the Middle East’s religious importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims and focus on protecting religious freedom for all people.