Recovering Church History: Exile from Babylon
Across much of the Middle East, the ancient Christian story seems to be coming to a bloody end almost before our eyes. The most dramatic catastrophe in recent years has been that of Iraq's Christians, who represented 5-6 percent of Iraq's population in 1970. That number is now below 1 percent, and shrinking fast in the face of persecution and ethnic/religious cleansing.
Western Christians watch this story in horror, but few claim detailed knowledge of the situation, or can easily recognize the Iraqi churches we read of in the news. Are they perhaps the survivors of some Victorian missionary enterprise? we wonder.
Actually, understanding the history of Iraq's churches should make us still more keenly aware of the tragedy we see unfolding. Not only are these churches — Chaldean, Assyrian, Orthodox — truly ancient, they are survivals from the earliest history of the church. For centuries indeed, the land long known as Mesopotamia had a solid claim to rank as the center of the church and an astonishing record of missions and evangelism. What we see today in Iraq is not just the death of a church, but also the end of one of the most awe-inspiring phases of Christian history.
The Church Goes Back to Ur
Mesopotamia was so vital to early Christians because it was firmly part of the ancient civilized world, connected to the Mediterranean by flourishing trade routes, while at the same time, it usually lay beyond the Roman Empire's political power.
When they faced persecution in Syria or Palestine, early Christians tended to move east, where they joined the ancient Jewish communities based in Babylon. These churches were rooted in the oldest traditions of the apostolic church. Throughout their history, they used Syriac, which is close to Jesus' language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus.
When the Roman Empire became Christian, Mesopotamia became the main refuge for those theological currents that the empire now labeled heretical: the Monophysites or Jacobites, and the Nestorians. Ultimately, most of the Christians of modern Iraq look to one of these movements as their spiritual ancestor.
Once outside Roman oversight, Christian leaders were free to establish their own churches. The main Christian church in the Persian Empire was based in the twin cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the successor to ancient Babylon and the most populous city in the world at that time. This church followed the teachings of Nestorius after 431. In 498, its head, the Katholikos, took the title of Patriarch of Babylon, the Patriarch of the East. When Muslims in their turn established their own empire, overthrowing the Persians, the Katholikos moved his capital to Baghdad.
Syriac-speaking Christianity found a stronghold in Mesopotamia, around the northern reaches of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Today, the older place names have vanished and bear no relationship to modern state divisions; in terms of modern nations, we are speaking of the area where modern Iraq, Turkey, and Syria come together, where activists now struggle to create a new Kurdistan. The region includes many names that are often in the news as centers of political violence and instability. For centuries, the major churches here were as famous as any in Christian Europe, although their story is now quite forgotten in the West.
From the 4th century through the 14th, Iraq had many centers of Christian scholarship and devotion. Apart from Baghdad itself, the Church of the East had metropolitans at Basra, Kirkuk, and Erbil. Jacobite leaders often made their home in Tikrit, which served as the seat of the Maphrianus (Consecrator), head of the Jacobite church throughout the East. Tikrit in modern times gained notoriety as the home of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Muslim al-Tikriti clan.