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Iraqi Christians' Path of Persecution
Not heresy hunters, nor Islamic purges, nor even Mongol hordes could wipe Christianity from Iraq.
But what really pushed Mesopotamian Christians into irrelevance was the thirteenth-century Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan. Khan had a Christian wife and was tolerant of Christianity. The Nestorians even tried to forge an alliance between European Christians and the Mongols against Islam that would open all of Asia to Christianity. But in the end the Mongols chose Muslim allies, and the Church in Mesopotamia and Persia faded from sight. The Christians who had once moved freely in Central Asia were now suppressed, indeed utterly exterminated east of the Kurdish mountains.
Roman Catholic missionaries did somehow reach Mesopotamia and Persia in the thirteenth century. These missionaries labored among the Nestorian Church remnant to restore doctrinal harmony. Finally, by 1553, facing new problems in Europe with the Protestants, the Latin Church gained new strength in the region by reconciling to itself some Nestorians. Thus was the Chaldean Catholic Church formed.
Based in Baghdad, the Chaldeans are today the largest Christian group in Iraq, with about 240,000 adherents as of 1995. The old Nestorian Church, now called the Assyrian Church of the East, claims about 60,000. The nation's two largest evangelical Protestant churches claim about 13,500 adherents. By David Barrett's estimate, many believers in the older churches have also been touched by the rapid spread of the Pentecostal/charismatic renewal.
All of these numbers would doubtless be much higher were it not for the bloody twentieth century. After World War I, Mesopotamian Christians initially benefited from the British Mandate by receiving special privileges. But when the League of Nations created an independent Iraq in 1932, Assyrian cities were burned and Christians killed for their ties with the former Western rulers.
In the 35 years since Hussein brought the Ba'ath Party into power, he has denied the separate religious identity of Iraqi Christians in an effort to construct a secular Arab nationalist state. He has tried to stamp out their Syriac language by banning it from many of the schools. In an effort to boost his Islamic credibility, Hussein has forced Christians to learn the Koran. And he has often lumped them in the same ethnic category as the Kurds, knowing the groups don't get along because of disputed land holdings in oil-rich northern Iraq.
With a history of world isolation, Iraqi Christians don't maintain much tolerance for traitors. So there's a reason the highest-ranking Christian in the anti-Hussein Iraqi National Congress calls Aziz the most hated man among Iraq's beleaguered Christians.
* For further information on topics treated here, albeit from an older and biased source, see the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) on Chaldean Christians, Nestorianism, and the History of Persia.
* For statistics on Christianity in late twentieth-century Iraq, see David B. Barrett, "Iraq," World Christian Encyclopedia, Vol. I (Oxford University Press, 2001).
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