Saving Christians in Iraq
PROVO -- When Saddam Hussein's regime toppled in 2003 there were about 1 million Christians in Iraq.
Now there are about 300,000.
But this exodus of Christian refugees isn't a matter of a foreign religion being forced out of an Islamic country. It is a cleansing of interlopers and Western influence.
"Christianity is not just something Western, but originally it was something Eastern," said Herman Teule, chair of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at the Netherlands' Radboud University Nijmegen. "So Christianity is at home in Iraq. Christianity is older than Islam. You cannot understand Islam unless you understand the early development of Christianity in that region."
And knowing the history of Christianity in Iraq opens a window into how missionary-minded churches grow and die. It explains why Iraq Christians are fleeing their country to places like San Diego, but also why keeping Christians in the Middle East may be important for the future of the world.
Teule spoke on June 7 at BYU's David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies on "Christians in Contemporary Iraq: Current Plight and Future Prospect," which meant he had to first explain what happened in the past.
The other branch of Christianity
Many Western Christians have a vague understanding of Christian history. That history follows the missionary efforts of the Apostle Paul and the spread of Jesus' teachings through the Roman Empire, eventual acceptance by Rome, and then progress north throughout Europe and from there out to the rest of the world.
But this understanding of history isn't entirely true.
Christianity also spread in other directions. East for example. East into Mesopotamia including what is modern-day Iraq. This growth was at the very beginning of Christianity -- during the first quarter of the second century -- the 100s.
And it flourished.
It developed its own liturgy. It developed schools, universities and monasteries. It sent out missionaries. It built churches and religious centers. And all this while most of Europe was yet to be converted and Islam was yet to be founded by the Prophet Muhammad.
It became larger than its Roman Christian cousin. But its glory wouldn't last long -- only about 1,000 years.
The eastern branch of Christianity is usually called the Church of the East or, more precisely today, the Assyrian Catholic Church of the East ("Catholic" meaning "universal").
A Christianity of martyrs
At the start, the Christians got along well enough with the Arsacid dynasty of the Parthian Empire. But governments don't last forever and with the rise of the Persian Sassanides in the 3rd century, Christians came under hard times.
They didn't get along as well with the new official state religion Zoroastrianism.
"They didn't fit in," Teule said. "They became a Christianity of martyrs."
One of the problems they had is a problem Christians face today in Iraq. The majority suspected that the minority Christians had more loyalty to their religion than to their own country. The Persian Empire worried they would align themselves with Christians in enemy countries. To counteract this, the Church of the East showed its independence by having its own Catholicos or Patriarch.
Around the 6th century, some Christians came from the West and established their own group now called the Syrian or Syriac Orthodox Church (Also called "Jacobites" after Jacob Baradaeus, Bishop of Edessa from that time). The theological differences between the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Catholic Church of the East were slight -- but enough to cause tension.
Then the world changed.
The Persians were defeated in 635 by the Muslims at the Battle of Qaddasiyyah. A new government was in town.
Zoroastrianism was out. Islam was in.
Teule said in many ways, this was a golden age for the Church of the East. By 781, the new capital, Baghdad, the center of the church. Christians proudly identified themselves as Arabs. They had prominent government positions. They sent out missionaries and had established Christian communities as far flung as Tibet, China and Afghanistan. They translated the writings of Greek philosophers into Arabic and engaged in deep discussions with Muslims.
Everything wasn't rosy, of course, but when the Mongols came and destroyed Baghdad in 1258, things got bad. The Church of the East found itself in the mountains of modern day Kurdistan. It had lost its power, its schools and developed a tribal form of governance.
At first the Mongols were sympathetic with the Christians (they hoped for an alliance with the Western Christians). But this changed, and when it did the results were disastrous for the Christians.
In the late 1300s the central Asian warlord Timur destroyed hundreds of Christian churches. "It was a dark night for Christians," Teule said, "and for Muslims as well."
But the Christians survived.
The Church of the East divided in the end of the 1500s when three bishops broke off and then aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. This new split is now called the Chaldean Catholic Church -- and is today the largest group of Christians in Iraq. A similar split happened around that time to the Syriac Orthodox Church, creating the Syriac Catholic Church.
These four churches, The Assyrian Catholic Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church are now the main Christian traditions in Iraq. They survived 2,000 years of history in Iraq -- but some experts do not think they will survive new challenges.
Theology of extinction
In 2008, historian Philip Jenkins wrote "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died." Jenkins argued that the Iraqi churches need to face the inevitable and develop a "theology of extinction;" a way of coping doctrinally that the churches are dying. The consolation prize is that at least Christianity itself will go on, even if their ancient branch of Christianity doesn't.
And churches have died (Ever heard of the huge center of Christianity in North Africa? Gone.). Jenkins told Christianity Today how it happens. "What kills a church is persecution. What kills a church is armed force, usually in the interest of another religion or an antireligious ideology, and sometimes that may mean the destruction or removal of a particular ethnic community that practices Christianity," he said. "Iraq is a classic example of a church that is killed over time. The church will probably cease to exist within my lifetime."
Teule, however, doesn't like this scenario -- and its implications. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't either and Pope Benedict XVI called a meeting of the Synod of Middle East Bishops to, among other things, try to find ways to maintain a Christian presence in the Middle East.
"These Christians don't think about extinction, but are trying to survive and have a future in Iraq," Teule said.
A Christian homeland
One of the strongest voices in Iraq for Christians, according to Teule, is Sarkis Aghajan. Aghajan fought with the Kurds against Saddam and even had a place in the Kurdish government after the new Iraq Constitution was adopted. He hopes for a semi-independent homeland for the Christians in Northern Iraq and has worked to establish Christian cities and towns where Christians can flee violence.
And there has been violence.
Two-thirds of Iraq's Christians have fled the country. Many have fled their homes and found new homes in the relative peace of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. But many of these refugees are not suited for life in the mountains. "You can have safety, but if there is no work what good is that?" Teule said. "But if they can adapt there is a possibility of building a future there."
Part of the difficulty in building a future, and something that Aghajan is working against, is the reluctance of the different churches to have all Iraqi Christians think of themselves as one ethnic identity. In the 19th Century, one identity began to rise up as archeologists unearthed the ruins of the huge pre-Islamic Assyrian civilizations. Christians began to think of themselves as the heirs to these glory days and identified themselves as ethnic Assyrians and less as Arabs. But the churches resist this because it is a more secular identity and lessens their direct control.
Teule worries that without a unifying identity, the Christians' influence is divided and lessened.
But the biggest danger is that the remaining 300,000 or so Christians in Iraq will also flee the country like those who have moved to Jordan and surrounding countries as well as those who went to Europe, Australia and the United States.
Bob Montgomery, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, is on the receiving end of many of those refugees who have fled Iraq. They come to San Diego where there is a large community of the Chaldean Catholic Church. The flow of refugees picked up following several attacks on Christians in December last year. The process to be resettled in a new country can take years.
"When refugees get to the United States they are coming to an economy that is not great and it presents new challenges," Montgomery said. "But they don't have the luxury to wait until the economy gets better. They are in dire straits now."
But even though Teule recognizes the cultural and economic pressures that are pushing individual Christians to flee the home of their ancestors, he worries the exodus has broader implications for the fate of the Middle East.
"I think it would be a disaster if Iraq is emptied of its Christian population," Teule said in an interview with the Deseret News. "It would mean the division of the world into two blocks. An Islamic Middle East and a so-called Christian West." Teule said this would create a true clash of civilizations and go against a history where Muslims and Christians have had long periods of peaceful co-existence. "It would make Islam an almost monolithic thing -- something it has never been before. It has always been open to other ideas and open to the Christian minorities. It has always been the reality in Iraq that there was interaction between Christians and Muslims. It would be a pity if that would disappear."