Every Christian has an opinion on the impending possibility—now, it seems, likelihood—of war with Iraq. A bishop from President Bush's United Methodist Church appeared in a recent television commercial opposing war with Iraq. The National Council of Churches and its 36 member denominations have backed similar protests. President Bush has made heavy use of spiritual rhetoric in pushing for action. Conservative American Christians have proved cautious, many waiting to hear the administration's full case.
But what about those Christians most directly affected by the conflict? Though many fled Saddam and sanctions in the '90s, more than 350,000 Christians have remained in Iraq. These men and women, who trace their church lineage to Pentecost, are caught in a clash between Eastern and Western powers that echoes a conflict faced by their forefathers in the faith.
During the fourth century, Persia's ongoing conflict with the newly Christianized Roman Empire threatened to destroy the Christians living in the Mesopotamian lands of modern-day Iraq.
Mesopotamia emerged on the New Testament scene during Pentecost in Acts 2:9 when Luke noted the presence of Parthians from Mesopotamia. Soon the Gospel spread to Mesopotamia from Edessa, known today as Urfa, which is located in southeastern Turkey. Edessa was the Assyrian region's major trading center and became one of the early church's most successful missionary-sending cities. This Assyrian Church based in Edessa found great evangelistic success among the Mesopotamian Jews, who shared the Syriac language. The Assyrian (also known as Nestorian) church in Iraq still proudly speaks this close relative of Jesus' own Aramaic mother tongue.
Mesopotamians speaking Syriac in the third century were automatically subservient to either the Romans or Persians depending on where they lived, so the spread of their Christian faith was limited. Living on the fringes of the disputed border separating the Roman and Persian worlds, Mesopotamian Christians began suffering severe persecution from Persia following Constantine's conversion in 312 A.D. and subsequent promise to protect Christians in the East. The Yale orientalist and missionary historian Kenneth Scott Latourette explains, "After [Christianity's] adoption by Constantine, it was regarded by the Persian rulers as the faith of their deadliest rivals. To be a Christian was to be under the protection of Rome. … Christianity was suspect and in the vicissitudes of Persian-Roman relations subject to repeated and often severe persecutions."
Constantine only made the situation worse by writing Persian monarch Sapor II to express how pleased he was to hear about the Christians under Persian control. This letter incited suspicion and fear in Sapor, who couldn't have been pleased when he also heard how Constantine petitioned the prayers of Christian bishops for Roman victory. The Persian ruler ordered the Christians to pay double taxes, with death the punishment for bishops who did not collect from their flocks.
As Latourette tells it, the situation of these early Iraqi believers soon became even grimmer. "Christians were accused of opposing the tenets of the state faith—of teaching men to pay honor to the sun and fire, of defiling water with ablutions, and of burying the bodies of men in the earth. They were also said to have refused to assist Sapor in his wars. It is not unlikely that many of them desired a Roman victory."
But connection with Rome was not the only thing working against the Mesopotamian Christians. Ever since the Sassanid ascent to power during the first half of the third century, Persia had seen an upsurge in nationalistic Zoroastrianism—a cult that did not look favorably upon competing religions. While the Greco-Roman world featured a smorgasbord of religions and philosophies, Zoroastrianism dominated throughout Persia, raising the heat on the area's Christians.
Latourette's final assessment may give some comfort to the modern heirs of those beleaguered 4th-century believers: "The amazing fact is not that Christianity remained a minority cult, but that it survived at all." We pray with the Iraqi Christians that the God who still redeems evil circumstances will once more protect his people.
Collin Hansen is a freelancer pursuing degrees in journalism and European history at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.
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More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net.Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2002)
Sex, Politics, and the Bible | Some words just don't mean what they used to (Jan. 24, 2003)
Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II) | So you've got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here's a historical pause for reflection. (Jan. 17, 2002)
From Oratorios to Elvis | Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years (Jan. 10, 2002)
The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics | Though open to frightening ethical abuse, genetics has been a Christian vocation since Gregor Mendel did his famous pea-plant experiments in the mid-nineteenth century (Jan. 3, 2002)
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
No Humbug | A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story, but why? (Dec. 20, 2002)
'Tell Billy Graham the Jesus People Love Him.' | How evangelism's senior statesman helped the hippies "tune in, turn on to God." (Dec. 13, 2002)
Advent—Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 6, 2002)
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)
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