The first-ever papal visit to Iraq should raise awareness about the challenges facing Iraqi Christians – a majority of whom are Catholic.
In the past two decades, the Christian population in Iraq has fallen by over 80%. The 1987 Iraqi census reported that there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, and today it is estimated that the Christian population is less than 250,000. Spurred by political instability and war, many Christians have immigrated to other regions, including North America, Western Europe and Australia.
My recent book, “Alien Citizens: The State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France,” examines how international factors influence the status of religious minorities. I argue that in Iraq’s case, it was a series of international interventions that eventually led to the dwindling of the Christian minority.
Who are Iraq’s Christians?
Most Iraqi Christians are ethnically Assyrian, and they belong to the historic Church of the East, one of the three major branches of Eastern Christianity. The language of worship is a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus is said to have spoken.
The largest of these Assyrian communities belongs to the Chaldean Catholic Church, making up more than two-thirds of all Christians living in Iraq.
The Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East are other smaller Assyrian communities that constitute about 5% of Iraqi Christians.
Syriacs, who constitute somewhere between 10% to 15% of Iraqi Christians, are organized around the Syriac Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, which are headquartered in Lebanon and Syria respectively.
Armenians and Arab Christians, along with other small groups, constitute the rest of the Christians living in Iraq.
Christians flee Iraq after war
The events that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led to a large-scale persecution of the Christian population.
While Saddam Hussein repressed ethnic and religious groups such as Kurds and Shiites, Christians fared relatively better under his rule. As religion scholar Kristian Girling wrote, in return for their acquiescence to Saddam’s authoritarianism, Christians were given protections and gained prominence in business and cultural life.
Tariq Aziz, who was the deputy prime minister in Saddam’s Cabinet between 1979 and 2003, was affiliated with the Chaldean Catholic Church.
The ousting of Saddam by U.S. troops led to a power vacuum in which sectarianism and instability helped create the conditions for the rise of extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq from 2004.
As a result, many Christians fled Iraq. According to data compiled from U.S. International Religious Freedom reports, by 2013, a decade after the invasion, more than half the Christian population had left the country.
The destruction by Islamic State group
The plight of Iraq’s Christians became more precarious as the Islamic State group took hold of swaths of the country.
In 2014, IS controlled the territories around Mosul in Northern Iraq and expelled Christians from Nineveh Plains. According to some estimates, more than 100,000 Christians fled from Nineveh Plains to the autonomous Kurdish regions.
Many never returned after the defeat of IS in 2017. Those who did had to face the Shiite militant groups who helped the Iraqi government defeat IS and controlled some Christian territories.
Until the Iraqi government had tamed these militias and had political control over them, Christians had skirmishes with them over properties and lands. According to media reports, many more Christians left Iraq in this period.
In short, the U.S. invasion of Iraq started a cycle of violence that put Christianity under threat. As foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer wrote in a piece for The Boston Globe: “By overthrowing Hussein, we hastened the end of Christianity in a land to which Saint John is said to have brought it soon after the Crucifixion.”
Is there hope?
Between 2017 and 2019, the Trump administration provided over US$300 million in aid to support the rebuilding of the Christian cities and villages of Nineveh Plains destroyed by IS in Northern Iraq.
However, a long-lasting solution to improving Christians’ status is maintaining the rule of law in Iraq. The Iraqi constitution, drafted in 2005, declares Islam as the country’s official religion. Singling out one religion at the expense of others can put religious minorities at risk unless clear protections are provided. Iraq needs a legal framework for equal citizenship to create a safe environment for religious minorities.
The Iraqi government invited Pope Francis to visit. The president of Iraq, Barham Salih, described the visit as “a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions.” Media reports have quoted a Vatican source as saying the pope aims “to comfort Christians who, amid wars and conflicts, have been forced to flee from Iraq.”
One cannot know if the pope’s visit will help Iraqi Christians heal from many years of suffering, but it will definitely bring public attention to their situation.