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The Christian presence in Iraq

Christianity there dates back to 1st century

IRAQ – until the last century known as Mesopotamia, the land “between two rivers” – is generally considered one of the cradles of civilisation. But the fact that there has been a sizeable Christian community in that country is not well known. Neither is the fact that Christianity in Iraq goes back to the earliest days of the Christian era, in the latter half of the 1st century AD.

The Old Testament tells us that it was Abraham’s birthplace, as were his wife, Sarah, and his son, Isaac’s wife, Rebecca. Later on, Jacob also went back there in search of a good wife, and ended up by marrying Leah and Rachael, his cousins, daughters of Laban, his mother’s brother.

In later Biblical history (583 BC), the Israelites were exiled to Babylon. There, “by the waters of Babylon”, the people of God experienced a spiritual awakening under leaders like Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Haggai. Away from the Temple at Jerusalem that had been destroyed, no animal sacrifices could be made. Thus, the practice of gathering in simple meeting places called synagogues to study the Scriptures was born. This was to spread among the rest of the Jewish communities in Palestine and elsewhere.

When they were allowed to return to Palestine by the Persian king, Cyrus, the renewed remnant of the exiled Jews rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem. For the next several hundred years, they prepared for the coming of the promised deliverer, a descendant of Abraham through whom all mankind would be blessed.
An article in the Internet posted by the Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF) indicates that archaeological evidence points to the conversion of many Jews who remained in Mesopotamia during the first century. As Jewish communities did not enjoy the same level of influence that they enjoyed around the rim of the Mediterranean, their synagogues became Christian meeting places, gradually modified to become elaborate church buildings.

Mesopotamia soon became predominantly Christian, and their communities enjoyed much freedom to practise their faith, spared from persecution which Christians in the Roman Empire suffered before the conversion of the Empire by Constantine.

A church in Kirkuk.

The Christian church in Mesopotamia significantly increased in numbers, but it seems that it was subject to doctrinal and liturgical arguments. Out of this saw the strong growth of the Nestorian Christians and the anti-Chalcedon rebellion, resulting in struggles that led to lasting divisions among the Christians.

In later times, Christian warriors fought the Mongols, the Muslims and the Ottomans, but internal divisions made it relatively easy for the Muslim armies to subdue the country, forcing Christians to seek refuge in the mountain regions of the north.

Despite the internal weaknesses of the church and the external threats to its existence, there continued to be a significant Christian minority in Iraq.
MERF estimates that until the early years of the 20th century, Christians constituted about 30 per cent of the Iraqi population. Population movement and other demographic factors have reduced the numbers to less than 8 per cent today.

For the most part, they belong to various ethnic and linguistic branches of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There are Chaldeans, Assyrians, Romans and Armenians in both groups. In addition, there is the ancient Nestorian Orthodox Church, a portion of which migrated eastward and settled in southern India. There they gained some Indian converts and have survived until this day.

MERF said that as the traditional churches did not discourage the people from studying the Bible, the 19th century Reformed missionaries found it easier to proclaim the Gospel beginning in 1836. Established as a joint endeavour between the American immigrant German and Dutch churches, they successfully planted their mission, and within five years, a congregation was established in Mosul, and a church building erected in 1840, followed by another 24 km away.

Following them, congregations were organised in Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra, with several preaching stations elsewhere in the country. In order to facilitate translation into Arabic, the term “Evangelical” was used to identify these new churches.

 

SIGNIFICANT MINORITY

‘Despite the internal weaknesses of the church and the external threats to its existence, there continued to be a significant Christian minority in Iraq.

Inside a church in Mosul. — Pictures from the Internet.
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