A medical team at Al Hayat Catholic Hospital in Baghdad performs emergency surgery. (photo: Borderlands/ Alamy)
Iraqi Christians take pride in their ancestry, counting Abraham of Ur of the land of the Chaldeans as one of their own. But their lineage has done little to protect them from Muslim insurgents since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003; extremists see Iraqi Christians as collaborators with the Christian West.
While some form of order has been restored in a country destroyed by seven years of strife, the dust has yet to settle for the countrys Christians. Once estimated at one million strong — and occupying positions of influence and wealth — Iraqi Christians are now scattered around the globe. No reliable statistics exist, but most experts believe less than 300,000 Christians remain. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring Jordan and Syria, where they wait for visas to settle in the West or pray for a more stable homeland. Smaller numbers have found some comfort in Lebanon and Turkey. Those unable or unwilling to leave Iraq have fled to the Kurdish-controlled regions in the north, particularly near ancient Nineveh.
The origin of Christianity in Mesopotamia is shrouded in legend, but most credit the apostle Thomas with the evangelization of the regions Jewish communities on his way to India. Contested by two empires, Persian and Roman, Christian Mesopotamia prospered, becoming home to one of the greatest theological centers in late antiquity. Eventually, this Mesopotamian church turned away from the Greco-Roman world and declared its primary bishop catholicos-patriarch of the East, equal to and independent of the patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. At its height, this Assyrian Church of the East included eparchies in India, China and Japan.
Today, more than two-thirds of Iraqi Christians are Catholics belonging to the Chaldean Church — which maintains the traditions of the Church of the East while remaining in communion with Rome — and is led by Patriarch Emmanuel III. The remaining third belong to the Armenian (Apostolic and Catholic), Assyrian and Syriac (Catholic and Orthodox) churches. Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, left the region permanently for the United States in 1976.
Demographics. For much of its history, Iraq was diverse. In 1932, Christians represented 20 percent of its total population. Yet Iraqs instability — dictatorships, war and civil strife — has drained it of its minorities and middle classes. After Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, the Christian community declined to 10 percent. After the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Christian community declined to 5 percent.
Today, roughly 75 percent of the countrys 27 million people are Arab, 20 percent Kurdish, 3 percent Assyro-Chaldean and 2 percent Turkmen. About 97 percent of the population is Muslim, two-thirds of whom are Shiite and one-third Sunni. The rest of the population includes Christians, Mandaeans and Yazidis.
Sociopolitical situation. Though Iraq controls the third largest oil reserves in the world and possesses significant supplies of natural gas and water, its fledgling democratic government must rebuild its devastated infrastructure, bolster inadequate social services and combat widespread poverty and high unemployment.
Reportedly, 66 percent of Iraqi households are not connected to the general water network; those that are experience weekly or daily interruptions in water supply. In Iraqs most vulnerable communities, as many as 73 percent of residents do not have access to safe drinking water. The countrys electrical power grid is in shambles. Though electricity is key to stimulating the economy, the average daily supply per household is just 7.9 hours.
While student enrollment nationwide is low, there is a dearth of teachers and adequate schools and facilities. Approximately 14 percent of children, from ages 6 to 11, are not enrolled in school. Only 40 percent of students who complete primary school continue to secondary school. One quarter of men from ages 20 to 24 are unemployed and only 18 percent of women participate in the labor force.
Iraqs health care institutions greatly need attention and resources; they have languished for decades. Reportedly, public health care facilities have not been built in the provinces or Baghdad since the 1970s and the mid-1980s, respectively. Consequently, the health of the population has deteriorated. Immunization against deadly diseases has fallen between 10 and 20 percent. Cholera is endemic. Annually, 43 babies per 1,000 born die before they reach their second birthday (the European Union averages about 5.61 deaths per 1,000 born per year). About 14 percent of women suffer from some form of mental health problems compared to 9 percent of men. And 22 percent of Iraqi children, ages 5 and younger, suffer from chronic malnutrition; 5 percent suffer from acute malnutrition.
Religious situation. Since 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq has declined to less than 3 percent, raising concerns that Christians may all but disappear after a 2,000-year legacy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, since 2003, up to 500,000 Christians have either fled Iraq or are internally displaced. Most recently, thousands of Christians have fled Mosul after a car bomb attack on four buses carrying Christian students to Mosul University, which left one dead and 100 people wounded. Just ten years ago, about 100,000 Christians lived in the northern Iraqi city. Today, less than 2,000 remain.
The massive migration of Iraqs Chaldean Catholics has more than halved parish collections in the country, creating a financial crisis for the church, which can no longer afford to pay priests their stipends or operate catechetical programs and parishes — let alone sponsor catechetical or social welfare programs for its people seeking immediate refuge in Jordan or Syria.
Recognizing, however, the pastoral and spiritual needs of the Chaldean communities in Arizona and California, as well as parishes in Australia and New Zealand, the Holy See established an eparchy in San Diego in 2002 and an eparchy in Sydney in 2006. Together with the Chaldean eparchy in Detroit, these three New World jurisdictions now represent more than 37 percent of the entire population of the Chaldean Church.