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Fact Sheet: Christianity in Iraq

Fact Sheet: Christianity in Iraq

Capital: Baghdad
Chief cities: Baghdad (population 3.8 million), Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk
Population: 18.8 million (July 1990 estimate)
Languages: Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic
Government: One-party state (Ba’ath Party)
Chief religions: Shiite Muslim 55%, Sunni Muslim 40% and Christian 5%
Natural Resources: Oil, natural gas, phosphates, wheat, barley and rice

Modern Iraq is of recent invention. Carved out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the victorious European powers drew new national borders with little regard to the Arabic, Chaldean and Kurdish homelands which made up Mesopotamia. These divisions are a continuous source of tension in the region.

Christianity’s roots run deep in contemporary Iraq. Prior to the birth of Jesus, the people that once inhabited the “land between the rivers” played an integral role in the development of Judaism. Abraham, who in modern terminology would be described as an Iraqi, was “called from Ur of the land of the Chaldeans.” The Assyrians, centered in the northern Mesopotamian city of Ninevah, waged war on the Israelites, forcing the king of Judah to pay tribute. Jeremiah prophesied the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and the Babylonian exile. In the apocryphal Book of Daniel, the young hero interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, and predicted his downfall. He also made lions sleep.

Like a woolen rug, the destinies of the Judean kingdom and the Mesopotamian empires were intricately woven together, an uneasy mixture of culture and politics. The same holds true today.

St. Thomas, the doubting apostle, is traditionally credited for bringing Christianity to ancient Mesopotamia. Historians clearly indicate that Christianity arrived in the third century with Mar (lord in Aramaic) Addai and Mar Mari, missionaries from the Syrian city of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southern Turkey).

Early Mesopotamian Christianity was semitic. Linguistically, these Christians spoke Aramaic, also spoken in Palestine and Syria. Ethnically, their ancestors ruled and populated the Assyrian and Chaldean (Babylonian) empires. Liturgically, they borrowed elements of worship from the Temple in Jerusalem. These included animal sacrifices and the structure of the liturgy.

From its earliest days, Mesopotamian Christianity evolved into several schools of thought. The christological controversies of fourth century Christianity, involved two: the school of Alexandria, led by St. Cyril, which stressed Jesus’ divine nature, and the school of Antioch, led by Nestorios, the patriarch of Constantinople, which advocated Jesus’ humanity. Nestorios rejected Cyril’s title for the Virgin, “theotokos,”meaning God-bearer. Instead he advocated “christokos,” meaning Christ-bearer. The Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. declared Nestorios’ theology heretical and banished him from his patriarchal see.

The Mesopotamian church rejected the council, interpreting it as an attempt by the Byzantine emperor to homogenize institutional Christianity. Thus, the Mesopotamian church’s acceptance of the Nestorian “heresy” was based more on political than theological grounds. Today, ecumenical efforts by the Christian churches have determined that the differences are linguistic and philosophical misinterpretations.

In the seventh century, Arab tribes from what is now Saudia Arabia conquered Mesopotamia, Palestine and North Africa. Islam became the dominant religion of Mesopotamia and Persia.

Under Islam, Christian communities became self-contained, led by its clerics.

The dominant church of the region, the Assyrian Church of the East, developed as a great missionary body. Turning its efforts to the East, the Nestorian missionaries spread Christianity from India to China. They established monasteries and schools and even converted a ninth century Chinese emperor and his court. Indian Christianity traces its foundation and heritage to the Nestorian church.

Rebellious Tartar hordes in the 14th century ravaged the Mongolian dominions. Christianity’s presence in Mesopotamia and Persia subsequently dwindled.

Western missionaries increased their contacts with the Nestorians in the 15th and 16th centuries. By this period, the office of the Nestorian catholicos (patriarch) passed from uncle to nephew. In 1551, a rival catholicos, John Sulaka, was elected. He professed loyalty to the bishop of Rome and formed the Chaldean Catholic Church. Through varying shifts of allegiance, the present Chaldean Catholic patriarch stems from the original Nestorian patriarchal line (not hereditarily) while the present Nestorian catholicoi stem from the formerly Catholic line of John Sulaka.

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