For some, the presence of Christians in Iraq is a surprise. Our image of Iraq is that it is an Arab nation and Arab equals Muslim. Of course, that is not the case. All Arabs are not Muslims and, conversely, all Muslims are not Arabs. Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, is not an Arab nation.
Christianity was born in the Middle East. Iraq, together with Iran, are part of Mesopotamia, and Christians have been present in the area since the mid-second century. Paulist Father Ronald. Roberson in his book, The Eastern Christian Churches, notes that in the third century the area was conquered by a Persian dynasty that perdured until the seventh century and was known as the Sassanid Empire. The Christianity that developed there became known simply as “the Church of the East.”
In the fifth century the Church of the East gravitated toward the Christology of Nestorius that was condemned at the Council of Ephesus. Nestorians were declared heretics and banned from the Roman Empire and many fled east to the safety of the Sassanians. The Church of the East, which became known as the Assyrian Church of the East, increasingly separated itself from the orthodox churches. Other Christian groups deemed heretical also sought refuge among the Persians.
While they remained a minority among the principally Zoroastrian Persians, the eastern churches flourished and cities such as Mosul, Basra, Kirkuk and Tikrit became thriving Christian centers. All of that changed with the coming of Islam. The eastern churches, while tolerated, were hobbled by Islam and became but remnants. Nonetheless, they continued to exist throughout the area until the present time alongside Eastern Catholic (Uniate) churches and their Muslim neighbors.
Radicalization of some Muslim groups in Iraq, Syria and Egypt has resulted in the harassment and persecution of eastern Christians culminating with the forceful removal of all Christians (and others) from Mosul and other ancient Christian areas by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
We must indeed pray for our suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Christians and others, and pray for the strength to endure the tribulations that have come upon them. You may provide aid to them through Catholic Relief Services at http://emergencies.crs.org/iraq-crs-response-strategy-during-displacement-crisis/
Image Credit: CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters