Wise men from the East and Christians in Iraq (continued)
A SMALL MINORITY
Today, Christians are a small but important minority in Iraq. In a population of 23.1 million people, there are about 650,000 Christians. Although the constitution describes Islam as the state religion, all citizens are supposed to be equal before the law, without distinction, and freedom of religion, belief and worship are guaranteed. Many Muslims are shocked by the overt secularism of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist party, while prominent politicians include Tariq Aziz, a member of Iraq’s largest Christian community, the Chaldeans.
The overwhelming majority of Iraqis (96%) are Muslims. The Sunni Muslims are a minority (33%) but form the urban middle class and exercise influence and power beyond their numbers in urban, economic, social and political life. However, the largest numbers in the Muslim population (63%) are Shia Muslims, like their neighbours in Iran.
Iraq is also home to a number of interesting minorities. The Jews of Iraq were once an important community, culturally and socially, but their numbers have dwindled dramatically in recent generations. The Baha’is have a long history in Iraq, first fleeing persecution in Iran, where they were accused of blasphemy and heresy.
Two minorities almost unique to Iraq are the followers of the Yazidi and Mandaean religion. The Mandaeans trace their story back to at least the 2nd century AD, and their religion includes traces of Judaism and Gnosticism. They claim to be the original disciples of John the Baptist but are sometimes known as Sabeans and are recognised in the Quran, along with Jews and Christians, as ‘people of the Book’, monotheists with a scriptural heritage.
The Yazidi religion blends elements of Zoroastrian, Manichean, Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs and practices. They are often accused of being devil worshippers because of the prominence they give to the fallen angel, Malak Ta’us, who manifested himself in 12th century founder, Shaikh Adi.
Iraq’s Christians can justly claim they are a Biblical people: they trace their origins to the first Pentecost and the early missionary activities of the Apostles, especially Thomas. The early church in the region developed rapidly so that by the 4th century there was a thriving church in Mesopotamia that was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch. At one time, the see at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad, was the most important Christian centre outside the Roman or Byzantine Empire.
After the church in Mesopotamia declared its independence, the other Eastern Orthodox churches accused it of the heresy of Nestorianism, which it has always denied. Despite its isolation and accusations of heresy, the Assyrian Church of the East, as it became known, was a vigorous missionary church, sending missionaries to the Far East who reached Tibet, China and Mongolia centuries before the voyages of Marco Polo.
The Assyrian church survived the invasions by Muslims and the horrors of the Crusades. Although numbers dwindled through wars, persecutions and massacres, these Christians maintained their unity until the arrival of Latin missionaries, intent on suppressing Nestorianism and bringing about union with Rome. These efforts eventually caused a major rift in the 16th century, and the main churches have remained divided for almost 500 years.
UNIQUE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES
Today Iraq is the only Middle East country in which the largest church of the Christian minority is in communion with Rome. The Chaldean Church is a uniate church, dating back to 1552. That church survived further splits in 1672, 1681, and the 1790s and again in 1830, and remains a vital force in the Christian world of the Middle East.
Despite these divisions, the Assyrian Church of the East survived, although there have been further internal divisions, rival patriarchs, massacres at the hands of both Kurds and Turks, and grave disappointment at the failure of the West to recognise Assyrian claims to nationhood after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
Anglican missionaries from both SPG and CMS were present in Mesopotamia from the 1840s, but insisted their purpose was to assist the local church and not to proselytise or to establish a new church. At the early Lambeth conferences, there was considerable interest in the Assyrian Church and some speculation about imminent Anglican-Assyrian inter-communion. Irish missionaries from CMS who worked in Baghdad and Mosul included the Revd Ernest E. Lavy, a medical graduate from TCD, and Dr George W. Stanley from Dalkey. But World War I disrupted their work and the mission came to an end in 1919.
Apart from the Chaldeans and Assyrians, Iraq’s Christian minority today includes the Syrian Orthodox Church; the Syrian Catholics and Greek Catholics or Melkites, who are both in communion with Rome; the Armenian Apostolic Church, which also remembers genocide and massacre at the hands of the Turks; and a tiny Greek Orthodox community. Others include Presbyterians, Lutherans and Adventists, and there is also a tiny Anglican presence in Baghdad.
ARCHBISHOP WILLIAMS’ WARNING
In recent generations, there has been a steady migration from the traditional Christian towns and villages in northern Iraq, so that the majority of Christians today live in Baghdad. All the churches report the number of Christians in Iraq is shrinking as many leave the country. Those who remain fear the way extremists can use the conditions created by sanctions against Iraq to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians and portray the Western powers, particularly the US and Britain, as Christian nations carrying out a new crusade against Islam.
Archbishop Rowan Williams has warned that a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein could ‘rapidly and uncontrollably spiral down into chaos’. He has claimed that presenting Saddam as a martyr could strengthen the hand of extremist groups in the surrounding countries. ‘Christians in the region, without exception, say their position as minorities would be put seriously at threat,’ he said.
Trocaire points out that ‘in the event of military strikes against Iraq, it is certain that the civilian population will pay the highest price’. But already the people of Iraq are suffering: since 1991, at least 315,000 children under the age of five have died as a result of the sanctions imposed originally with the intention of forcing an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. There are serious food shortages; child mortality is at 125 per 1,000; one quarter of all under-fives are malnourished and one quarter of the adult population shows signs of starvation.
One of the Wise Men in T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, after his return from Bethlehem to Babylon, is left wondering:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
At Epiphany, one is left wondering whether the counsels of wise men will prevail, or whether the Christian people of another biblical land will be denied the promise of peace that was part of the Christmas message, and face more death and destruction.
The Revd Patrick Comerford is Southern Regional Co-ordinator of CMS Ireland.
Next week: The ‘Just War’ theory and the prospect of war in Iraq.
-Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¬ Church of Ireland Gazette 2003