November 12th, 2010
07:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: Albert W. Hickman is a research associate in global Christianity at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and was an associate editor for the Atlas of Global Christianity.
By Albert W. Hickman, Special to CNN
Violence against Iraq's Christians is up.
The most recent rash of attacks began on October 31, when gunmen stormed the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) church in Baghdad; in the ensuing violence at least 50 died and 75 were wounded. This week brought more attacks, with three people wounded in western Baghdad when bombs exploded outside Christian homes.
The attacks have provoked demands (including some from Muslims) that the Iraqi government do more to protect Christians.
Recent days have also brought both threats of additional violence against Christians and at least one call (by a Syriac Orthodox archbishop) for Christians to leave Iraq altogether.
Yet the latest violence against Christians, for all its horror, is merely the most recent - not simply in the seven years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, but in the almost two thousand years of Christian presence in Iraq.
Tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas brought Christianity to Jewish colonies in present-day Iraq in the first century. Adiabene (northeastern Iraq), home to a significant Christian population by the late second century, was a refuge for persecuted Christians from the Roman Empire.
By the fourth century, Seleucia-Ctesiphon (southeast of modern Baghdad) was the seat of a bishop. In 424 the church in Mesopotamia declared its independence as the Assyrian Church of the East, the oldest Christian church in Iraq. The period through the sixth century saw alternating cycles of prosperity and persecution (including many martyrs) at the hands of Zoroastrians.
Seleucia-Ctesiphon, once the most important patriarchate outside the Roman Empire, was largely responsible for the early extension of the Christian faith to other parts of Asia. Until the tenth century, the Assyrian Church’s missionary activity ranged as far as China.
The arrival of Islam (with the seventh-century Arab conquest of the Persian Empire) at first had little effect on Christians. The replacement of the conquering Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids, however, brought increasing Islamicization. Pressure to convert (and persecution of those who refused) also increased, although martyrdom was not necessarily greater than under the Persians.
Neither did Christians suffer excessively under the Seljuk Turk occupation from the eleventh century. Christians’ alliances with the subsequent Mongol conquerors, however, brought retaliation from resentful Arabs and Kurds, who massacred many Christians and enslaved survivors during purges in the early 1300s.
Already in decline by that time, Christianity’s retreat accelerated until Tamerlane’s invasion at the end of the fourteenth century dealt an almost mortal blow to the Church in Iraq.
In the midst of this decline, however, Roman Catholic missionaries had, from the thirteenth century, been making efforts towards reunion between the Church of the East and the Vatican. These efforts bore fruit with the establishment of the Eastern-rite Chaldean Catholics in Baghdad in 1553.
A Latin diocese was formed in 1632, but no resident Latin bishop was permitted until 1820. Protestantism also appeared during the nineteenth century, with British missionaries in the 1820s followed by Americans in the 1840s. The Protestants’ attempts at evangelizing, whether of non-Christians or members of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, produced little in the way of results.
Anglican efforts focused on establishing schools and a printing press proved more successful.
The nineteenth century also rekindled the persecution Christians had experienced previously as the Church of the East, reduced to only around 100,000 members, was further decimated by Kurdish massacres in the 1830s and 1840s.
The withdrawal of Russian and British troops - whom both Orthodox and Catholic Christians had aided - during World War I resulted in the massacre of tens of thousands more Christians by Turks and Kurds.
Further persecution, this time at the hands of Iraqi Arabs, came when the British again withdrew in 1932 at the end of their League of Nations mandate.
The Christian landscape in Iraq today includes a wide variety of groups. About half of all Christians in Iraq are Catholic, mostly Eastern-rite Chaldean Catholic. Around one quarter are Orthodox of various traditions, and the remainder are mostly members of independent Charismatic and Protestant churches.
A growing number of converts from Islam choose to remain within their Muslim context rather than joining traditional churches.
While individuals faced hardships under Saddam Hussein, Christians were not singled out based on their faith, although they were not allowed to build additional churches.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, however, Christians have experienced increasing persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority, in part for their cooperation (real or perceived) with the occupying forces.
By 2003 the number of Christians in Iraq had risen to over 1 million, from around 170,000 in 1910. As a percentage of the population, however, Christians had declined from over 6 percent in 1910 to about 3 percent in 2003.
Since then, many have fled the increasing persecution, mostly to neighboring Syria and Jordan, so that the current Christian population of Iraq is an estimated 500,000–600,000, less than 2 percent of all Iraqis.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Albert W. Hickman.
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