Missionary Tales from the Iraqi Front
With Saddam Hussein's government newly deposed, you might expect Iraq's approximately 300,000 Christians to be celebrating. But while nearly all expressed their relief over Easter that most of the fighting seems to be over, many fear an Islamic takeover of the government once the Americans and British withdraw. Hussein's government, while cruel and despotic, tolerated the church for many years; yet just last year, Hussein began passing laws against Christians in favor of Islam, and Christians there sounded the alarm. The debate over Islam's relationship to a post-war government is already underway.
Meanwhile, British Christian organizations such as the Barnabas Fund are planning to distribute humanitarian relief through the Iraqi churches once the fighting stops, while some American Christian agencies have commissioned missionaries to bring badly-needed aid to Iraqis. It's a plan that's come under heavy fire from American Muslims, worried that Christians will take advantage of the security brought by Anglo-American military occupation to proselytize Muslims.
This isn't the first time Iraq has been occupied by Western forces. Basra, the southern Iraqi city that fell to British forces a few weeks ago, was also the port of entry to British forces in 1915. Britain, responding to the Arabs' appeal for "liberation" from the Ottoman Empire, drove the Turks out to establish the kingdom of Iraq. Yet British involvement there goes back even further, particularly with the native Assyrian (or Nestorian) church, today the largest Iraqi church outside the Chaldean Catholics. And it's a story Christians in the West need to hear.
While Roman Catholic missionaries began laboring among Assyrian Christians in the thirteenth century, the Church of England initiated the first Protestant mission among them in the early nineteenth century. Rather than planting churches in Islamic territories, church officials decided that the best strategy should be to connect with the ancient Assyrian church. Missionaries were to stress they came only to aid their eastern brothers and sisters, not to convert them. The idea was that by offering them education and aid, the Assyrian church would be better positioned to then take the gospel to their unbelieving neighbors. The Church began commissioning missionaries in 1815, one of these making contact with an Assyrian bishop traveling through Constantinople in 1822.
It would be Isa Rassam, a convert to Anglicanism from Chaldean Catholicism, though, who would spearhead the Anglican mission. Arriving in 1840 in the mountainous region now identified with the Kurds, Rassam tracked down the Assyrian patriarch Mar Shimun. While showing him hospitality, Mar Shimun was initially suspicious of Rassam's intentions, fearing that the English wanted to convert his people—as the pope had some centuries earlier attempted, and to some extent succeeded in doing. But Rassam assured him otherwise, saying that it was not the Church of England's wish to "make [the Assyrians] abandon their rites for ours, but to induce them to free and amicable relations." Though Rassam returned home to England, he effectively paved the way for further contact.
Rassam's mission had some serious consequences. He breezed over English concerns that Assyrian Christians held to "heretical" Nestorian doctrine, emphasizing rather what the churches had in common. The mission to the Assyrians won the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Church of England, while the "lower," or more evangelical, branch continued to suspect the Assyrians of heresy. The rift would hamper support-raising for the mission, limiting the number of missionaries and what they could accomplish.
A second consequence had to do with Rassam's own high Anglicanism. Rassam despised the evangelical branch of the Church, and he reacted with hostility when Mar Shimun informed him that American Presbyterians had a few years before planted a mission in Assyria. Rassam informed the patriarch "that there were among us zealous Christians who seemed to have read the Bible to invent new doctrines and rebel against the Church [rather] than to give them increase of wisdom and holiness." Sadly, this bickering between the English and Americans would mark the mission for years to come, and some Assyrian Christians exploited this division to obtain material assistance from both.
Though unintended, Rassam's mission had one other consequence—this one the most serious of all. The Assyrian church feared their Muslim neighbors, the Turks and Kurds—with good reason. In 1843, shortly after Rassam returned home, Kurds invaded Assyrian villages, killing some 10,000 Christians. Rassam's mission of friendship inspired hope among many Assyrians that Britain would protect them from any further assaults. But, as the decades rolled past, Britain would prove unreliable in this regard. In 1918, for example, the year Britain completed its occupation of Iraq, 15,000 Assyrian Christians died fleeing from Turkish troops toward British lines. And other tragedies would follow.
It's a sad truth that since the 1930s, more Assyrian Christians live outside the Middle East than inside Iraq. Britain's refusal to create an autonomous region for Assyrian Christians in Iraq in 1932 provoked Assyrians to clash with the new Iraqi army, resulting in yet another massacre. Years later, the patriarch would declare that this decision sealed "the doom of the most ancient church and nation in Christendom."
American and British Christians intent on bringing both compassion and Christianity to post-war Iraq would do well to remember the Assyrian church's precarious past—and encourage and aid their brothers and sisters rather than endanger them.
* For a detailed study of the Anglican mission to the Assyrian church, see J. F. Coakley's The Church of the East and the Church of England (Clarendon Press, 1992).