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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Tormented in Our Land: The Reality of the Christian Existence in Iraq

The goal of this article is to shed light on the reality of Christian lives in Iraq today—the torments we have lived through, but also the hope for our role in building a better future. Christians have been indigenous to this land for more than 1,800 years, yet in the last fifty, our numbers have dwindled. Many Christians have stories of losing their job or being passed up on a promotion because of their faith; others even have stories of watching their homes and businesses being taken away by force. These experiences have caused hundreds of thousands to make the agonized decision to leave their hometowns in search of a safer environment for themselves and their children. This is also not the first time Iraqi Christians have been faced with such decisions; the last two generations have experienced three major displacements in less than a century.[1]

The Chaldean and Assyrian Churches belong to the same root, which is the old Church of the East. This church, historically established by St. Thomas, possesses a great treasure of spiritual, theological, and liturgical traditions in the Aramaic language. For centuries, this church remained unknown in the West. In the past 200 years, thanks to discoveries, additions, and studies, it was revealed again in all its richness.[2] Today, a branch of the Church of the East in union with Rome is known as the Chaldean Church. It has learned much from hardships and setbacks during the centuries under the Persian, Arab, Mongol, and Ottoman empires all the way to the foundation of the Iraqi state in 1921.

In the modern era, Christians have played an important role in shaping the society of the new state; they built schools, published books, and founded youth organizations, churches, and monasteries.[3] They supported the new state and were respected as a significant minority—20% of the population—at the beginning of the century.[4] However, this community has since been buffeted by several waves of trials. Under Baathist control, Christians lived in a political climate that forced them to remain silent, without posing a challenge to the ruling authority. Like every Iraqi citizen, Christians knew they were being continuously watched by the government’s intelligence services. The clergy knew the government authorities employed multiple informants, including inside the church, and wrote reports on their activities and ideas. In my experience, some clerics were even forced to inform on parishioners suspected of foreign entanglements.

Through this period, it was almost impossible for the church to carry out its cultural activities; its schools were nationalized and its buildings confiscated. Its financial affairs were made solely dependent on donations by faithful parishioners. Postsecondary opportunities for Christian students were limited to scientific institutions where degrees were less subject to government interference but narrow in scope. As they tried to participate in their community—run small factories, social clubs, or hospitals—Christians were constantly under government scrutiny. Nevertheless, they found ways to contribute to medicine, arts, media, and economics. Some even chose to work in administrative positions and gained officials’ respect for their competence, professionalism, and sincerity in work, despite not being party members.

In the 1980s, military mobilization of youth during the war with Iran, blowback from the failed invasion of Kuwait, and economic sanctions suffocated Iraq. In this environment of exhaustion and discontent, the status of Christians deteriorated sharply through the 1990s. After losing the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein struggled to retain Arab allies and undertook a social Islamification campaign to regain some legitimacy among the majority population. For Christians, this meant closing restaurants and tourist locations under their ownership. Increasingly alarmed, many chose to emigrate. In the United States alone, the number of Iraqi Christians increased by 70,000 from 1980 to 2007.[5] Today some 500,000 Chaldeans call the U.S. home and another 60,000 live in Australia.[6]

In 2003, significant political changes took place after the invasion of Iraq and the dissolution of the Baathist state. Like all Iraqis, Christians hoped for a prosperous and stable future. However, the chaos, instability, and internal conflicts which followed the fall of Saddam’s government led to greater suffering and increased hostility. After 2004, several subsequent governments came and went but were unable to establish rule of law or policies to drive psychological and social stability in the country. Christians were eager to participate in the life of the new nation and assist in its foundation but continued to suffer at the hands of an overwhelmed and at times hostile state.

I watched as actors loyal to these governments became sectarians embroiled in armed militias operating with little interest in national unity. This situation further weakened the government’s authority. Social chaos followed institutional decline. Crime increased, administrative corruption spread, educational institutions deteriorated, and panic prevailed when members of society lost confidence in one another. During this period, Christians, especially those living in cities—Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Basra—suffered the largest share of negative consequences, subject to some of the most brazen rights violations due to their religious identity.

Between 2003 and 2014, I witnessed 77 separate bombings of churches, shrines, and religious buildings, part of 114 total incidents of violence in the same time period. It began with the kidnapping and death of a Christian translator in July 2003, the first of many. August 1, 2004, was the first set of bombings, which affected six churches in two cities. An estimated 1,200 Christians, including a bishop and priests, were killed, and twice as many were kidnapped between the fall of Saddam and 2014.[7] Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, the wounds of Iraq’s Christians have only deepened. Many were forced to leave the country as Mosul fell to the marauding bandits, followed by the Nineveh Plain. In 2003, more than 1.5 million Christians called Iraq home; now, less than 200,000 reside in their homeland, according to official government statistics.[8] During this period of lawlessness, organized criminals saw an opportunity to seize Christian properties and steal ownership documents.[9] Government officials were aware of such crimes and established several investigative committees, yet the criminals were never prosecuted, nor were the properties returned to the rightful owners.

Although the majority of ISIS has been eradicated, its ideology continues to affect Iraq’s social and political fabric. The Iraqi Christian lives in a state of declining faith in the homeland. He repeats with agony, “there is no future for us in this country,” and takes any opportunity to emigrate. The U.S. twice declared the acts perpetrated against Christians a genocide but to no avail. Neither Secretary of State John Kerry’s designation in 2016 nor H.R. 390 signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, turned serious international support in favor of Iraq’s Christians.[10] The Christian exodus from Iraq continues—the vast majority now live in the diaspora, facilitating the emigration process for those who remain behind. In summation, the challenges Christians in Iraq face today are as follows:

  1. Second-Class Citizenship: The state’s acceptance of sectarian Islamic law limits democracy and social freedom for minority groups. Often, non-Muslims are made second-class citizens in terms of legal and political representation.[11] This situation will continue as long as religious and political parties derive their ideology from Sharia’ and it remains the law of the land.
  1. Sectarianism: Iraq lacks a culture of national identity, instead operating by loyalty to a religious sect which actually eliminates the reality of diversity in Iraqi life. This is exemplified by the declining numbers of Christians, Yazidis, and Sabeans who leave Iraq in order to thwart religious violence and discrimination.
  1. Tolerance, instead of coexistence: Pope Francis’ visit in 2021 was an opportunity to showcase the history of Iraqi Christians, build inter-faith relations, and foster a culture of peaceful coexistence. Sadly, these hopes were overcome by the many crises that Iraq has experienced since. Instead of coexisting together, we are hesitantly tolerated.
  1. Demographic disadvantage: Christians have become a numerical minority that can exercise minimal influence in a political system that allocates power according to demography. Additionally, rampant administrative and financial corruption in the country strongarms many qualified professionals from their jobs in government ministries.
  1. Political Credibility: Existing political leaders are confident that Christians do not pose a threat, cannot provoke any response affecting the political scene, and lack the ability to mobilize the international community to defend their cause. 
  1. Lack of Political Leadership: Christians lack leaders capable of defending their rights, and the political community is deeply divided. Christian political parties have performed poorly due to their cooperation with mainstream politicians’ pursuit of narrow interests. Christians have received many empty and unrealistic promises from influential politicians; issues like revoked property rights are discussed but never addressed.
  1. Lack of job opportunities: The complete control of labor markets by corrupt political parties means qualified Christians struggle to find job opportunities for sectarian reasons.
  1. Distance from the International Church: Iraq’s Christians are awaiting a unified defense from the international Church. With an emphasis on the role the Church has played in providing moral and material support in the past, Iraq’s Christians must carry their issues to international forums.

The Way Forward

How can the Church be part of the solution for Iraq? How can it maintain a directive role in rebuilding a nation to secure the rights of all citizens? How can the Church simultaneously defend its own identity yet be a voice for the dignity of all?

Finding solutions to the issues above indeed falls on the shoulders of the state, government, and ruling parties. However, the Church cannot remain ignorant to the hardships endured by its people. Indeed, it must take steps to strengthen the relationship between Christians and their homeland and to keep the flame of faith alive. Believers turn to the Church for spiritual advice and material assistance such as medical treatments, financial assistance, job support, and help during crises in daily dealings. Many also turn to the Church for institutional support against corrupt businesses and state entities. The Church can contribute solutions and strengthen its role by capitalizing on areas where it currently finds success.

For example, Iraqis already have high confidence in the Church’s educational and health institutions. I believe the Church must build on this confidence, continue to expand on these projects, and send a message of mutual respect to all citizens. At present, Christian churches maintain seventeen schools across Iraq, ranging from kindergarten to university. In addition, Christians have established three public, non-sectarian hospitals with a reputation for providing efficient, professional, and transparent services. Such institutions also provide job opportunities in their communities; in the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, for example, we have secured 570 jobs for our young population since 2010. Church institutions can provide opportunities and create hope for citizens seeking roles in a country where corruption is decaying faith in the administrative state. We must continue to do so.

Of course, I am well aware of the challenges facing this mission. Finding the necessary financial support, navigating complex aid bureaucracies, and securing buy-in from local actors are constant hurdles. However, in spite of all these challenges, I maintain that educating future generations is the surest way to preserve Christian heritage and secure a more stable coexistence in Iraq. We survived persecution in the first centuries of the Church. Again, we struggled through massacres of the 20th Century. Today, we overcame ISIS and yet another attempt to uproot our heritage from the land. By God’s grace, our educational and humanitarian institutions will continue to grow and establish a future in Iraq for Muslims and Christians working in collaboration, not confrontation. Through education, our people can have an effective and influential presence and present to the world their long experience in the field of interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

[1] Russel A. Hopkins, “The Simele Massacre As a Cause of Iraqi Nationalism:How an Assyrian Genocide Created Iraqi Martial Nationalism” (master’s thesis, University of Akron, 2016), 50-53; Özgur Körpe, “Framing Turkey’s Cross-Border Counterterrorism Operations in the Context of Pragmatic Strategic Culture: An Operational Design,” Military Review 101, no. 5 (September 2021): 119. (accessed January 11, 2023); and Giovanni Sale, “The Christians of Iraq,” La Civiltá Cattolica, (accessed January 11, 2023).

[2] W. Baum & D. Winkler, The Church of the East. A Concise History, London 2003, 2010; Mar Bawai Soro, The Church of the East, San Jose, 2007; H. Teule, Les Assyro-chaldéens. Chrétiens d’Irak, d’Iran et de Turquie, Turnhout 2009 ; C. Baumer, The Church of the East, London 2016; C. Chaillot, L’Eglise assyrienne de l’Orient, Paris 2020. 

[3] M.-L. Chaumont, La Christianisation de l’empire Iranien, Peeters 1988, 54-160 ; D. Wilmshurst, The Martured Church. A History of the Church of the East, London 2011, 412-440.

[4] A. O’Mahony, The Chaldean Church: Politics of the Church-State relations in Modern Iraq, in: Heythrop Journal 45(2004)435-450 ; E. Naby, The Plight of Christians in Iraq, in: The New York Review of Books 53(2006) ; E. Hunter (ed.), The Christian Heritage of Iraq, Gorgias Press, 2009 ; Suha Rassam, Christianity in Iraq, Gracewing, 2005, 2016, 133-149.

[5] Samuel Helfont, “War, Bureaucracy, and Controlling Religion in Saddam’s Iraq,” Pomeps Studies 35 (October 2019): 8 (accessed January 11, 2023); and Aaron Terrazas, Iraqi Immigrants in the United States in 2007, Migration Policy Institute, (accessed January 11, 2023) and Amanda Ufheil-Somers “Iraqi Christians: A Primer,” Middle East Report 267 (Summer 2013).

[6] Adhid Miri, “Chaldeans in Michigan: Part 1,” Chaldean News, ( (accessed February 24, 2023); Assyrian/Chaldean community populations in Australia hit 60,000, Census shows, SBS Assyrian, (accessed February 24, 2023).

[7] In the book of Suha Rassam, Christianity in Iraq, Gracewing 2005, 2010, 2016 (revised edition) all the crimes committed against the Christians during the periods 2005-2009, 2010-2015, are documented and the needed references are given, with a list of all the victims, kidnapped or murdered, and the names of all the churches attacked or destroyed. See also: J. Yacoub, Une diversité menacée. Les Chrétiens d’Orient face au nationalisme et à l’islamisme, Paris 2018 ; B. Isakhan, Cultural Cleansing and Iconoclasm Under the Islamic State: Attacks on Yezidis and Christians and their Heritage, in: F. Oruc (ed.), Sites of Pluralism. London 2019, 181-194 ; H. Murre-van den Berg, Syriac Identity in the Modern Era, in: D. King (ed.), The Syriac World, Routledge 2020, 770-782.

[8] Department of State, Iraq 2021 International Religious Freedom Report, (accessed February 24, 2023).

[9] Jayson Casper, “Word or Deeds: Shiite Firebrand Pledges to Restore Iraqi Christian Property,” Christianity Today, (accessed January 11, 2023).

[10] “Secretary of State John Kerry Remarks on Daesh and Genocide,” U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Iraq, (accessed January 23, 2023) and  “President Donald J. Trump Signed H.R. 390 into Law,” Trump White House Archives, (accessed January 23, 2023).

[11] Iraqi Constitution, art. 2.