Most people think of the Middle East as Arab and Muslim, but it is not exclusively the case. Before the rise of Islam in the seventh century the predominant population of what is now Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt was mostly Christian.
Once known as Mesopotamia—"the land between the two rivers"—Iraq was the site of ancient Babylon and Assyria. Iraq, the land of the father of prophets Ibraham (Abraham), witnessed the birth of Christianity by the evangelism of the Apostle Thomas. Christians of Iraq trace their ancestry to the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. The first churches in Mosul, Iraq date back to the second century. Iraqi Christians, whose mother tongue was once Aramaic, the language Christ spoke. These churches made great contributions to the rise of civilization in Iraq and their most enlightened periods in history were at the time of the Abbasid period in early centuries of Islam.
The Christian population in Iraq is roughly 3 percent of the population now. There used to be almost a million Christians in Iraq out of a population which is estimated to be about 26 million, most of whom are Sunnis and Shiites.
The largest Christian group is the Chaldean Catholics who almost make up about two thirds of all Christians. Other Catholic communities are Syrian Catholics and Greek Melkite Catholics. The second major community is the Syrian Orthodox community, followed by the Armenian Orthodox church. The Evangelical (Protestant) church is small in number and mostly reformed churches. Finally, it is worth noting that the Assyrian Church of the East, the most ancient church in Iraq, has declined in number, and even its Patriarchal See has moved to Chicago, Illinois.
Iraq gained its independence from the British mandate in 1932 and since then, governments that ruled Iraq were in constant change till the Ba`ath secular party took over and stayed in power until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The people of Iraq—Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians—lived under political pressure for decades. The people of Iraq suffered greatly from the brutal war between Iraq and Iran (1980–1988). Thousands of people died, among them many Christians. Then the Gulf War (1991) began when Iraq involved its neighbor, Kuwait, and that was followed by the United Nations sanctions on Iraq, which affected the life of the people in all levels and caused emigration of thousands of Iraqis to neighboring countries and to the west.
The fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein which was hoped to bring peace and democracy to Iraq, has unleashed religious sectarian violence. The political, economic, and social stability deteriorated in all of Iraq and affected all of its citizens, and mostly Christians. The sectarian violence on one hand and the attacks against the Alliance forces, mostly against the American army, caused turmoil, unrest and death to thousands of people.
Assassinations of politicians, religious leaders, and community leaders crippled attempts to bring together a strong government that can enforce law and security. Sectarian violence between the two main dominant Muslim sects, Sunnis and Shiites, has caused a death toll of more than one hundred thousand Iraqis since 2003. It has caused confessional fighting that led to the emigration and displacement of many Iraqis. The American military presence and sectarian violence gave rise to the appearance of many extremists from all sides. In all of that, Christians of Iraq were victims of that violence and are still suffering and even considered now as second class citizens. Recent reports relate the death of at least 350 Christians—245 were killed by militant/armed groups, 60 were killed due to their presence in areas where there were suicide bombs, and 45 died as a result of the Alliance and American exchange of fire with militants or scattered bombardment.
Christians of Iraq are not given equal rights, nor equal citizenship, and inadequate representation in the government. Some Christian leaders fearing the creation of an Islamist state thought of moving to a separate province called "Nineveh," but it failed. Iraqi people are leaving Iraq, and the highest proportional emigration is among the Iraqi Christians who, in addition to the reasons mentioned above, are leaving Iraq because:
- Some Christian families, in certain regions, are forced to migrate (be displaced) because they are considered infidels by the extremists. They leave their homes and seek to live with their relatives in other regions (i.e. Christian families moving from south and central parts to the North, mainly the Kurdistan region).
- Attempts to force Christian women to wear the veil in some schools, universities and government offices by verbal and written on the walls, saying that the unveiled woman is considered an infidel. The unveiled women are threatened to be sent away from the university or workplace.
- Christians are kidnapping and either are freed if they are wealthy and pay a ransom or killed because of religious belief.
The Christians of Iraq either emigrate to the North of Iraq, Kurdistan or to neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. It is reported that at least 200 Christian families were forced to leave their homes and their possessions in the area of al-Dora in April–May 2007. Hundred of thousands of Iraqis left Iraq to be refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. They are there hoping to emigrate to the USA, Canada, Australia and the West, or to go back to their home in Iraq, if peace and security are guaranteed. Of those refugees there are about 10,000 Christians in Syria, 5,500 Christians in Lebanon, and 3-4 thousand in Jordan.
Most of the refugees lack proper healthcare, proper shelter, education, and medicine. Family disintegration is rising and it leads to psychological problems. The current situation in Iraq is very depressing and requires international attention and a quick solution.
The Arab Group for Christian–Muslim Dialogue is working towards the unity of the Iraqi people, to end sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and between Christians and Muslims, and for people to respect the dignity of life of each other. In particular the Arab Group has denounced the kidnapping of the Chaldean Bishop of Mosul, Iraq and the killing of three guards who were with him.
The Forum for Development, Culture and dialogue (FDCD), is working on empowering Iraqi NGOs in peace building and conflict resolution and giving humanitarian assistance to refugees in Syria and Lebanon.
The churches of Iraq ask for the churches of the USA to pray for an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people, to be in solidarity with them and help in bringing peace, security and stability to Iraq, so that those who stay in that land may continue their ministry and witness to the resurrected Lord.
The Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour is General Secretary of the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue, a region-wide organization based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is also the chair of the board of the Forum for Development, Culture, and Dialogue, also based in Beirut.