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, University of Sussex
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
Although nearly 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, fewer than 250,000 Christians now remain in the country. The true number is difficult to estimate due to recent ISIS attacks and the ongoing flight of Christians. In 2021, 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 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 Iraqi 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. Over 80% of the Christians present in Iraq before the 2003 invasion have left the country. Nearly two decades after the invasion, they have not returned. 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. Additionally, both Iraqi security forces and the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces, a consortium of primarily Shia Muslim militias, engage in intimidation and violence against Christians and other minority groups. In Northern Iraq, ongoing airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and associated militias have harmed civilians and forced Christian communities to flee their villages.
Although Christians face continued oppression as a result of irregular conflict, sectarian violence, and the government’s failure to protect minority communities, there have been several recent, positive developments. In December 2020, through urging from Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Patriarch of Baghdad, and with support from President Salih, the Iraqi parliament declared Christmas a national holiday in a unanimous vote. Additionally, Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq in March 2021 renewed the hope and determination of Christians in the country and increased positive dialogue surrounding the concerns of Christian communities and the value of religious diversity in Iraq.
Christian Responses to Persecution in Iraq
The main response to Christian persecution in Iraq has been flight, although even before the US invasion in 2003 when violence escalated, Christians were emigrating from Iraq, both for economic reasons and due to the increasing Islamization of society. By 2001, 30 percent of all Iraqis emigrating were Christian, though they represented a much smaller percentage of the population. And in the aftermath of the US invasion, pressures to leave mounted exponentially.
Iraq has experienced the steepest proportionate decline of Christianity of any country in the Middle East in recent years. An estimated population of nearly 1.5 million Christians just prior to the US invasion in 2003 dwindled to about 700,000 in 2006, and further to less than 250,000 in 2021, though these figures are uncertain and disputed. Almost no Christian has remained in IS-held territory. Most have gone to Kurdish and Shiite territory, from where they hope to return home, while others have fled to camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Still others have gone overseas.
Other Christians have chosen to fight back against their oppressors by forming militia groups. Christians on the Nineveh Plain, for instance, were often unprotected by the government of Iraq and the Peshmerga (Kurdish military force), so they formed the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) in 2014. Other Christian militias, such as the Dawronoye, have made common cause with the Kurds to fight back against ISIS, although long-standing tensions between Assyrian Christians and the Kurds means that these disparate Christian militias do not always get along. Still, in the battle to regain Mosul and the surrounding area, Christian militias played a role, fighting alongside Iraqi special forces to reclaim their homeland. President Barham Salih has acknowledged the significant impact of Christian reconstruction efforts in formerly-occupied regions of Iraq. “The Levant is unimaginable without Christians,” Salih stated in response to Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq.
Christians who have remained in the country have had to scale back their activities greatly, though they continue to worship and pray. In southern Iraq and in regions on the Nineveh Plains controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces, Christians avoid celebrating their own religious holidays when these coincide with Shia holidays of mourning.
Outside of Iraq, Christians engage in political advocacy at the United Nations and among Western governments for a safe haven or autonomous region on the Nineveh Plains; others document human rights abuses; others perform social services, like assisting other refugees. Cooperation among Christian communities is robust.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Joshua Landis and Dr. Kent R. Hill, and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.