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.

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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.

Mosul, too, had its stellar Christian past. And surrounding the cities were hundreds of monasteries that were certainly equal to anything in, say, contemporary Ireland in terms of scholarly tradition.

These Mesopotamian monasteries were also the base camps for one of the greatest missionary enterprises in Christian history. Especially between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Church of the East was establishing bishoprics and metropolitans across Asia — through Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, into Tibet and Kyrgyzstan, and as far as India and China.

Scapegoats for Global Cooling

Looking at the world in 850 or so, few observers would have doubted that the Christian future lay in the Middle East and Asia, rather than in the barbarian-ravaged lands of Western Europe.

Insofar as they know the story of Christianity in the East, Westerners generally assume that those churches must have shriveled quite soon after the rise of Islam during the 7th and 8th centuries. Actually, the decline was much slower; Iraq's churches and monasteries were still booming well into the 12th and 13th centuries.

What effectively finished them off were the Mongol invasions and their aftermath, which devastated most of Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1220s onwards. Also, in the late-13th century, the world entered a terrifying era of global cooling, which severely cut food supplies and contributed to mass famine.

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Meanwhile, the collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world much poorer and more vulnerable. A hungry and desperate society looked for scapegoats. Europe's Christians turned on Jews, killing and expelling hundreds of thousands; in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, Muslims inflicted a similar fate upon their Christian neighbors.

Christian communities were uprooted or wiped out across the Middle East, and ceased to exist in most of Central Asia. Churches suffered mass closure or destruction, including at such ancient centers as Erbil, Mosul, and Baghdad. Bishops and clergy were tortured and imprisoned.

Christianity survived, but was confined to poorer and more remote regions. The Patriarchs of "Babylon" now literally headed for the hills: in later centuries, patriarchs made their home at the Rabban Hormizd monastery, in the mountains near Mosul. Iraq's shining Christian millennium had ended.

The final phase of the Mesopotamian churches began with the First World War, when the Muslim Ottoman Empire began slaughtering Christians across its territory. Among others, they targeted the Assyrians — that is, the last remnants of the Nestorian church that had once carried the faith of Yeshua to the Pacific Ocean.

(The Nestorians had split into the Chaldeans, who accepted papal authority, and the Assyrian church, which retained its independence. The ancient Jacobites, meanwhile, became known as Syrian Orthodox.)

Matters scarcely improved under the successor states established on the ruins of Ottoman rule. In 1933, Muslim forces in the new nation of Iraq launched a deadly assault on the surviving communities of the Assyrian peoples. Government-sponsored militias cleansed much of the far north of Iraq of its Assyrian population, killing thousands and eliminating dozens of villages.

So shocking were the purges that they demanded new legal vocabulary. Some months afterwards, Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin used the cases of the Assyrians, and the Christian Armenians before them, to argue for a new legal category of Crimes of Barbarity: "acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious, or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc.)." A great humanitarian, Lemkin developed this theme over the following years, and in 1943, he coined a new word for this atrocious behavior, namely genocide. The modern concept of genocide as a uniquely horrible act demanding international sanctions has its roots in the thoroughly successful movements to eradicate Middle Eastern Christians.

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Almost Gone

Christians did fairly well under the secular and nationalist rule of the Ba'ath Party, which rejected Muslim domination. In fact, Christians had originally helped found the Ba'ath, and long remained among its greatest supporters. Saddam's foreign minister and deputy Tariq Aziz was by origin a member of the Chaldean church, and bore the purely Christian name of Mikhail Yuhanna, "Michael John." Reportedly, 20 percent of Iraq's teachers, as well as many of its doctors and engineers, were Christian then.

But international events took their toll. The nation's economy was devastated by two wars, against Iran in the 1980s and against the U.S.-led Coalition in 1990-91, and the painful international sanctions that followed. These events provoked the exodus of everyone who could leave easily, which usually meant those professional groups, among whom Christians were well represented.

The second invasion of 2003 proved the final straw by unleashing Muslim militancy, both Sunni and Shi'ite, while removing any central policing authority. In the ensuing anarchy, Christians became primary targets of mobs and militias. Since that point, the story of Iraq's Christianity has been a catalog of persecution and martyrdom. Just between 2003 and 2007, two-thirds of Iraq's remaining Christians left the country, and the population will certainly shrink further in coming years, probably to a vanishing point.

What we are seeing then is the death of one of the world's greatest Christian enterprises. Certainly, its glory days were far behind it. Recall what William Wordsworth wrote when the Republic of Venice was snuffed out after centuries of dominating the Mediterranean world:

And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay?
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reach'd its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is pass'd away.

How could we mourn dying churches less than dead republics?

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008)

Related Elsewhere:

Recent articles on Iraq are available on our site.

Jenkins is also the author of God's Continent, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing in the Bible in the Global South, and other books.