Iraq's Christians Caught in the Middle, Again
This week we present a timely historical look at a forgotten group, by a friend of Christian History magazine with a unique mix of journalistic education and passion for the church's history. Collin Hansen is a freelancer pursuing degrees in journalism and European history at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. When not working towards graduation this summer, he may be found at Northwestern's library, a newspaper in one hand and a church history text in the other.
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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