Iraq’s rich and diverse Christian community is in grave danger, as more Christians flee the country. Today, few Iraqi Christians remain in the country as a result of increasing sectarianism, perceived ties to the West, and control by ISIS of areas where most Iraqi Christians had once lived. By 2013, the Iraqi Christian community had been reduced to about 500,000, half of what it was in 2003. The rise of ISIS has complicated matters, as the group has sought out and brutalized Christians and other minorities who have not fled Iraq.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Iraq
Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Gaza
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, Sussex University
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
Approximately 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq, athough the true number is difficult to estimate due to recent ISIS attacks and the ongoing flight of Christians. In 2013, approximately two-thirds of the Christians were Chaldeans, about one-fifth were Assyrians (Church of the East), and the remainder were Syriacs (Eastern Orthodox), Armenians (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), Anglicans, and other Protestants. Evangelical Christians may number near 5,000. Before ISIS took control of a large swath of northern Iraq, many Christians lived in the city of Mosul.
History of the Iraqi Christian Community
According to tradition, Christianity in modern-day Iraq (then Mesopotamia) dates to the first century AD. By the first half of the fourth century, Christianity was widely established in Iraq. There was rapid growth of Christianity from the fifth to the seventh century. By the time of the Arab conquest, there was a substantial Christian minority in the Sassanid Empire. At first Christians were able to co-exist and even contribute to Arab learning during the Abbasid Caliphate.However, as Christians, they were subject to the jizyah (special tax) and were forbidden from holding certain political positions and proselytizing; they were second-class citizens. Some Caliphs applied rules more strictly than others, subjecting the Christian community to persecution. From the tenth to the twelfth century, Iraqi Christianity experienced a marked decline. In the twelfth century, Arab rule came to an end in Iraq, as the Mongols moved in. The Christians were initially spared when Baghdad was sacked in the year 1258, but things worsened by the end of the century, as Christians were massacred well into the fourteenth century. Christians survived in small communities, mostly in the northern areas of Iraq.By the seventeenth century, Christian numbers again started to grow, though Christians still remained a minority. Christians were largely tolerated under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, but they were often marginalized within Iraq. The situation for Iraqi Christians became measurably worse and has continued to deteriorate since the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
While the 2005 Iraqi constitution guarantees equality and religious freedom, the government has done little to protect religious minorities. There are 14 officially recognized churches in Iraq. The Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders requires Christian groups to register, which requires that a group have a minimum of 500 adherents in the country. Without formal registration, the groups cannot qualify for government funding or official recognition from the central government’s Christian and Minorities Endowment Office. Unfortunately, Iraq’s rich and diverse Christian community is in grave danger, as more Christians flee the country. Today, few Iraqi Christians remain in the country as a result of increasing sectarianism, perceived ties to the West, and control by ISIS of areas where most Iraqi Christians had once lived. By 2013, the Iraqi Christian community had been reduced to about 500,000, half of what it was in 2003. The rise of ISIS has complicated matters, as the group has sought out and brutalized Christians and other minorities who have not fled Iraq. Indeed, the Iraqi government has been almost powerless to stop ISIS’s terror campaign.