National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 84, 2011


The worsening plight of Christians in Iraq


Its Origins and Development to the Present Day

by Suha Rassam

(Leominister, UK: Gracewing /
Melbourne: Freedom Publishing,
new edition, 2010)
Paperback: 300 pages
ISBN: 9780852447383
RRP: AUD$29.95
Available at News Weekly Books


Reviewed by Paul Stenhouse MSC, PhD


The war in Iraq continues to occupy the forefront of our daily news. Concern at the harassment, displacement, torture and murder of Christians and other minorities seems to have reached exhaustion point. And despite daily if not hourly reports focusing on the current political and military situation in the country, there is — not surprisingly, granted media bias and public apathy — little information about the background to the present-day conflict. There is even less understanding of its long-term consequences on the ancient, pre-Islamic, Christian culture and Christian inhabitants of the region.

Experience should have taught us that Catholic history is liable to distortion by secular historians. Edward Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire; Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment historians denigrated the so-called Dark and Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition, despite efforts by scholars like S.R. Maitland[1] who as long ago as the late 19th century proved beyond doubt that the “Dark” Ages were not so very dark, and our own times not so full of light, as interested parties would have us believe.

It is important for Christians to have a correct understanding of history not only to understand their faith but also to combat their enemies.[2]

Most non-Iraqis continue to be unaware that the population of Iraq once included a sizeable Christian minority whose very existence in their ancient homeland is under dire threat from Islamic extremists and others, including well-intentioned if naïve Western peace-keepers and their political masters. Even fewer know that Christianity’s presence in Iraq spans almost 2,000 years.

Suha Rassam’s book Christianity in Iraq raises questions that need to be asked, and provides some of the answers. Above all, she describes in some detail the suffering of Catholics and other Christians in war-torn Iraq — the Arabic root of whose name, ironically, means “to be fertile”, and “noble”.

There were Christians in Iraq long before Christianity was planted in Britain — as Sebastian Brock points out in his forward to this timely book. Christian Iraq harks back to Apostolic times.

Christianity was introduced into Mesopotamia (“the land between the two rivers”: the Tigris and the Euphrates) in the first century after the death and resurrection of Jesus, by St Ada I (i.e., St Thaddaeus) and his disciple St Mara. There was a flourishing Christian community in Babylon as early as 80 AD and it appears that it spread rapidly north around what is now Mosul. Despite the vicissitudes of history, it has celebrated an unbroken existence spanning almost two millennia.

Tragically, from the point of view of religious unity, the principal Iraqi Churches were to emerge as opponents of doctrinal decisions that were agreed upon by the Catholic Church at the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in AD 431 and AD 451 respectively. The Iraqi Church accepted the doctrines of Nestorius (the patriarch of Constantinople condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431) and were called Nestorian. They now prefer to be known as the Church of the East. (Nestorius declared, among other things, that Mary was not the mother of God; and his teaching cut off the Church of the East from the Catholic Church.)

The next Council (Chalcedon) resulted in a further split from the Catholic Church by the Monophysite churches: the Syriac-speaking Jacobites, the Copts of Egypt and the Armenians. The Nestorian and Jacobite churches dominated the Christian scene in Iraq and far beyond, for more than 1,200 years. After the 16th century, divisions in these two churches led to the formation of the Chaldaean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church.

As the author points out, both the Chaldaean Catholics and the Syriac Catholics have sizeable communities in Iraq today. They represent new dimensions of an ancient heritage, linking Christianity in Iraq once again with the Mother Church of Rome and its bishop, the successor of St Peter.

However, since the collapse of the Ba‘ath regime and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the shadow of Osama bin Laden has managed to cast a pall over the country. Demands have been made for women to wear the hijab or suffer the consequences (death or mutilation); Christians have been kidnapped, clergy have been ritually murdered and churches have been bombed. The author lists a number of factors that make the Christians of Iraq more vulnerable than others.

A distortion of the purpose of the Crusades[3] and the association of the term “Crusader” with modern-day Western military forces affects the way in which indigenous Christians are perceived in Muslim countries. There is a misconceived identification of Iraqi Christians with the West, which may stem from their openness to Western culture, and their shared Catholic and Orthodox faith. Various anti-American and anti-government factions have terrorised and attacked individuals who work as cleaners in cafés where Westerners are served, or church security guards or translators, calling them Western agents and sympathisers.

Christians take on jobs that are considered un-Islamic, such as the production and selling of alcohol, renting and selling of musical instruments, and even hairdressing. People with such jobs were the first to be attacked by militant Islamists.

The concentration of Christians in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basrah, where violence predominates, has also made them obvious targets. Being peaceful and easily subdued people with no militia to protect them, they are seen as soft targets by attackers, whether by diehard political and religious factions or by the local mafia and common thieves. Muslim radicals who seek to create an Islamic state specifically target Christians and other minorities, using a language of hate with the purpose of frightening them and driving them out of the country.

Such messages come from extremists of both Sunni and Shi'ite sects and can appear as graffiti on walls, as text-messages on mobile phones, or as pieces of paper thrust under doors. Mullahs have been heard announcing from their minarets: “Christians are infidels and it is halal [lawful] to kill them and take their belongings.”

Since September 2004, when the last chapter of this book ended, hundreds of individuals have been abducted, tortured and/or killed. Five religious leaders have been killed and 12 abducted, and over 60 churches have been damaged or destroyed. Large sums of blood money have been regularly collected from frightened Christians, especially in the city of Mosul. About 400,000 Christians have left the country since 2003. The rest are living in fear and the majority have been displaced from their homes. Despite these alarming figures, Christians and Muslims who have managed to live together for many centuries, continue to try to live in harmony.

Today, all Christian communities in Iraq have sizeable diaspora communities, spread throughout the world. The exodus from Iraq largely began not because of religious differences but largely in response to the economic sanctions that were imposed during the 1990s, impoverishing much of the population. And since 2003 terrified Christians and other minorities have fled for their lives, abandoning homes, businesses and centuries-old links with their homeland.

For 500 years between the ninth and 13th centuries, the Nestorian Church of the East spread across Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia to China, as well as to India, Arabia and the Gulf. The Christian legacy is still apparent today. Mongolian script, for instance, is derived from Syriac, which was the liturgical language of the churches that brought knowledge of Christianity from Iraq to these far-flung places.

The book’s author Suha Rassam was born in Mosul in northern Iraq, went to England in the early 1990s, and realised that little information about Iraqi Christians was available in English. To redress this situation, she has written a book that offers comprehensive and informed insights into 2,000 years of Christianity in Iraq. A future edition would be helped by having an index of persons and topics.


About the reviewer

Revd Dr Paul Stenhouse MSC is editor of Annals Australasia. His English translation from the Arabic, with footnotes by Professor Richard Pankhurst of Addis Ababa, of the Futuh al-Habasha / The Conquest of Abyssinia — an eyewitness account by a Yemeni Muslim of the series of jihads waged against Ethiopian Christians by Muslim fighters from Somalia in the 16th century — is available from Amazon books.


National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 84, 2011



[1] S.R. Maitland, The Dark Ages [1844] (London: John Hodges, 1890).

[2]      Clement Anthony Mulloy, “The impact of the West on world history: The contrasting methods and views of Jared Diamond and Christopher Dawson”, The Catholic Social Science Review, 15 (2010), pp. 137-152.

[3]     Paul Stenhouse, “The Crusades in context” (2007), available at Answering Islam: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue.