In 2003, Iraq suddenly became a dangerous place for Christians. Although Christians are essentially indigenous to Iraq, Islamic militants clamped down on any perceived “Western-ness” in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Writing for History Today in 2007, Penny Young describes how after the war began, Christians were labeled “Crusaders” and were subject to forced conversion on pain of death, torture, kidnapping, or rape.
And so the Christians of Iraq began to leave. Even when a missile hit their headquarters, they rebuilt. And they stayed.
And then ISIS came.
By 2012, half of Iraq’s Christians were gone. Although they had only made up 5 percent of Iraq’s population, they made up 20 percent of its refugees, fleeing mostly to Kurdistan, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. Some of them made their way to Europe or the United States.
But the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, an order of Chaldean Catholic nuns in northern Iraq, vowed they would never leave their ministries. Even when a missile hit their headquarters, they rebuilt. And they stayed.
And then ISIS came.
At the end of June, the sisters finally fled the city of Mosul and the neighboring town of Qaraqosh, fearing for their lives. The day before they left, Qaraqosh had been marked with nonstop cannon fire between ISIS and Kurdish forces, and in a message to supporters, the sisters’ prioress wrote that less than 100 people remained in Qaraqosh. She continues:
People are so scared; they have left the town, leaving everything behind. They don’t know where to go or when they will be able to return to their homes, if that ever happens.
By the end of July, Al Jazeera America was reporting that there were no more Christians left in Mosul. There is inconsistent information out of Qaraqosh, once known as Iraq’s Christian capital, but since ISIS captured the town on August 4, it can only be imagined that its Christians have already fled—or will soon.
But who are these Christians? And how did we get to this point?
The History of the Iraqi Church
The Iraqi Church dates back to the first century. In his 2006 book, The Church of the East, Christoph Baumer links the Iraqi Church’s origins directly to the Apostles: Either Thomas or Thaddeus founded the Church, though it’s likely they worked together in some context.
As a result, Iraq has been able to boast one of the world’s oldest continuous Christian populations, and it still bears the marks of the first century Church. For example, many churches still use Aramaic in their worship services, and Timothy I, an eighth century bishop in Iraq, went so far as to put it this way: “If Rome drew its authority from Peter, Mesopotamia [modern-day Iraq] looked to Christ himself, a descendent of that ancient Sumerian Abraham.”
Most Iraqi Christians—about 70 percent—are Chaldean Catholic. The Chaldean Church was separate from the Catholic Church until 1445, when the two institutions were able to mend a 900-year schism over matters of Christology. The Assyrians, both an ethnic and a religious minority, are the second largest group of Christians in Iraq and belong either to the Nestorian Church, the Orthodox Church or the Chaldean Catholic Church.
With a few exceptions, Christians have always lived peacefully in Iraq. (The most notable exception occurred after World War I. The United Nations gave control of Iraq to Great Britain and Assyrian Christians were massacred in the ensuing fight for independence because they supported the British.)
But by and large, Christians were traditionally free to worship. When the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1968, Christians were granted official protection in the new constitution. Saddam Hussein, who became the Ba’ath Party’s leader in 1979, seemed to have an affinity for Christians. He televised Easter services on state television, allowed Christian religious education in state schools, and appointed a Christian as deputy prime minister. Christians, in turn, supported the Ba’ath Party on key issues. They vocally opposed the 1990 trade embargo on Iraq, claiming it hurt all Iraqis, and they organized humanitarian help after the embargo was put in place.
It wasn’t until 2003, when the United States began bombing Iraq and Islamic militants became more public with anti-American vitriol, that the persecution of Iraq’s Christians ramped up. In August 2004, five churches were targeted in a series of bombings. In October 2006, an Orthodox priest was beheaded and dismembered. Two years later, al-Qaeda abducted and murdered the Chaldean Catholic archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho.
These violent acts and others like them led to the first wave of Christians leaving Iraq. The second began this summer when ISIS began taking over cities in northern Iraq.
The History of ISIS
ISIS—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL—used to be part of al-Qaeda in Iraq but split off last winter. They garnered international notoriety this summer after capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second most populous city.
ISIS is a militant group made up of Sunni Muslims. Most Muslims in the world are Sunnis, and their relationship with Shiite Muslims has been tense, stemming from a seventh century question of leadership. After Muhammad’s death, the Sunnis believed the next leader should be popularly elected. The Shiites, however, believed the leader should come from Muhammad’s family.
The Sunnis and the Shiites continue to have differences in theology, doctrine, and law and can harbor a great deal of sectarian resentment between them. Case in point: When elections in Iraq brought the Shiite majority to power (they are the majority group in Iraq), the Sunni felt threatened. And as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp puts it, the two groups have been engaged in a zero-sum game for control ever since.
ISIS is part of that zero-sum game. Their stated goal is to establish an Islamic state—along Sunni lines, of course—in Iraq. That’s why they are capturing cities and forcing Christians to flee, convert, or die.
A Plea for the International Community
From a tenuous and relative safety in Kurdistan, the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena are keeping the world abreast of the situation in Iraq. In an August 8 statement posted to the Dominicans’ website, the sisters wrote about the suffering they’re witnessing as they minister to people who have fled their homes:
What we saw was unbearable; people were suffering for no reason but because of their sect, religion and trace. We felt like we were in a nightmare wishing that someone would waken us up or that when the sun comes out it will be all over. But it was not the case, we were actually living a hard reality.
But the sisters are not without solutions. Their post ends with a plea to the international community: “You may ask what the world can do for us,” they wrote. “We would say, stop the blood, stop the oppression, and stop the violence.”