Christian groups in Iraq


Friday, May 9, 2003

By YONAT SHIMRON, Staff Writer

Q. Charles Gregory of Raleigh asks, "Who are the Assyrian Christians of northern Iraq?"

A. Located at the crossroads of so many ancient civilizations, Iraq has always had a minority of Jews and Christians. While most of its Jews emigrated to Israel, the country still has more than 1 million Christians of various denominations.

Christians in Iraq originally belonged to a branch of Christianity that split off from the early Christian church in the fifth century.

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Christians become a minority, but enjoyed a relatively peaceful co-existence with the emerging Muslim leadership. Under the Abbasid Empire, from 750 to 1258, Christians collaborated with Muslims in a monumental project of translating Greek philosophical and scientific texts into Arabic.

In the 16th century, a number of Christians in present-day Iraq allied themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. By the 19th century, they created their own church, called the Chaldean Church. It is part of the Catholic Church and recognizes the authority of the pope, but maintains its own liturgy and much of its tradition.

To this day, Chaldean Christians constitute the largest segment of the Iraqi Christian population. Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, is a Chaldean Christian.

Those Christians who did not unify with Rome remained in what was called the Church of the East. At the end of the 19th century, as archaeological remains of the ancient Assyrian Empire were unearthed, some of these Christians -- who never considered themselves Arab -- began identifying as Assyrian Christians. In so doing, they were trying to link their heritage to that of the sophisticated Assyrian Empire that ruled over the region of northern Iraq from 1300 to 600 B.C. The Assyrians are known from the Bible and from their own literary heritage, written down on clay tablets in cuneiform script. They built the city of Nineveh (present-day Mosul) described in the book of Jonah.

Most important, Assyrian Christians see their Aramaic tongue (the language spoken by Jesus) as an offshoot of an earlier Assyrian language.

Lucas Van Rompay, a professor of Eastern Christianity at Duke University, said the Assyrian Christian quest for self-determination parallels the rise of nation states across the world during the late 19th century. But whether there was a direct link between these Christians and the ancient Assyrian Empire is disputed.

"It's difficult to establish a real connection," said van Rompay. "It's a political issue."

After World War I when the British ruled over Iraq, Assyrian Christians were promised some sort of independence especially in the north, where most of them lived. That never materialized, and over the years many Assyrian Christians emigrated to the United States, especially California, where many now live.

Other Christian groups in Iraq include Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, and, beginning with the modern missionary movement, several Protestant groups as well.

"Under Hussein, the Christians of Iraq were relatively free," said Van Rompay. "But they kept a low profile."