Iraq's Long-Suffering Christian Community

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Apostolic Roots Bear Spiritual Fruit, Despite Sanctions
by Barbara G. Baker
June 12, 2001
BAGHDAD, Iraq (Compass) -- For many Western Christians, the mention of "Iraq" gives rise to mental images of Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War. Few realize that there are Christians in Iraq and that those Christians have arguably suffered more from the U.N. sanctions imposed after the 1991 war than from government oppression.

Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Iraq has an unusual contrast in religious demographics. Shiite Muslims form a two-thirds majority of the population, but for centuries they have been restricted in their religious practices by the country's minority of Sunni Muslims. That restriction continues today under the ruling Baath regime of President Hussein.

The government officially recognizes 14 local Christian communities. The largest by far is the Chaldean Catholic Church. Other denominations include the Assyrian (Church of the East), Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Coptic, Latin Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist and National Evangelical Protestant. Since 1981, however, no new churches have been allowed to register.

Iraq's Christians represent less than three percent of the estimated 22 million population, although the Iraqi government sets the figure at five percent.

As the cradle of Old Testament civilization, modern Iraq contains the historical ruins of Ur, Babylon, Ninevah and, traditionally, the Garden of Eden. At the same time, the Iraqi church has apostolic roots that are 2,000 years old, with Assyrian liturgies given in the same ancient Aramaic dialect spoken by Jesus and his disciples.

Officially a secular state, Iraq legally protects the freedom of its Christian minority to worship "in churches of established denominations," although the law forbids them to "proselytize or hold meetings outside church premises."

Since freedom of expression and association is strictly curtailed by the Baath regime, it is both illegal and dangerous for Christians to have small-group Bible studies or prayer meetings in their homes. Registered seminaries and schools of theology are allowed to function under church auspices to train priests and church leaders.

Local church leaders confirm privately that the government applies apostasy laws in a "discriminatory fashion." Christians are permitted to convert to Islam, but Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity.

So are Iraqi Muslims becoming Christians? "They ask," one priest admitted, "but according to the law, if they change their religion, both the convert and the one who baptizes him can be killed. So we send them out of the country to be baptized."

In recent decades, the Christian population, which had been concentrated for centuries in northern villages, shifted to urban areas of the south. Today Baghdad is the primary Christian center. Local church leaders estimate that a third of the nation's Christians have left the country since the Gulf War, with somewhere between 350,000 and a half-million still remaining in Iraq.

"The Christians still here are too poor to leave," an Iraqi clergyman in Baghdad told Compass in May. "Their monthly salary is not more than 9,000 dinars ($5), and they would have to pay 400,000 dinars for each person's exit visa."

Nearly half of the church youth are now semi-illiterate, church leaders say, due to the conditions of the past 10 years. At the primary level, many of them are refused school admittance, since Iraqi law requires any school with 25 Christian students to teach the Christian catechism. To avoid this expense, many principals stop accepting Christian pupils before their number reaches 25. If Christians reach the upper grades, they often drop out because they cannot pay the bribes demanded by teachers to give them passing grades.

Although the so-called "Faith Campaign" launched by Saddam Hussein four years ago promised to strengthen the religious beliefs of "all Iraqi citizens," the movement has reportedly pressured many members of the Christian community to accept Muslim teachings. Christian citizens jailed on various charges report that prison guards have told them they would win their release if they started studying the Qur'an and converted to Islam.

Nevertheless, during the Christmas season of 1994, Iraq became the first Arab country to allow the documentary "Jesus" film to be shown over national television. During the 1999 calendar year, the national "Babylon" newspaper surprised its readers by reprinting the "Daily Bread" Christian devotional reading in each daily edition.

As recently as 1982, Baghdad's Evangelical Church had only one Bible. Families in the congregation would take turns throughout the week, borrowing the precious copy to read it in their homes. Over the past two decades, through the cooperation of various churches, groups and Bible Societies in the Arab world, thousands of Arabic Bibles have been imported into Iraq. As a result, a growing majority of Iraqi Christian homes today have their own copy of the Bible.

During the past decade, Iraq's Christian leaders have been vocal spokesmen to the Christian West against the economic sanctions that have crippled the entire Iraqi population. "In a regime like the one we live in," Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon Raphael I Bidawid has explained, "the people are not the protagonists of politics, but suffer the choices made by their leaders."

Whatever their political opinions, Iraqi Christians were vehement in private as well as public that the economic sanctions imposed after the Gulf War have proved to be both cruel and ineffective.

"Cruel because they punish exclusively the Iraqi people ... and ineffective because they do not touch the regime," they declared, quoting the most well-known political figure in Iraq's Christian community, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. "In the name of the international community, United Nations sanctions [are] incapacitating an entire society."

Repeated proposals made by the international community to lift the sanctions have only served to deepen the sense of desperation many feel in Iraq, including Christians. "When I hear that the U.S.-Britain-U.N. alliance is planning to lift the sanctions, it means to us that they are preparing another military strike," an evangelical church leader from northern Iraq told Compass.

"Our church in Iraq was healthy in the 1980s," said one priest with 750 families in his parish. "But after the embargo came, we have too many problems. We are trying to do relief, and development work, and solve neighborhood social problems, and give spiritual care and nurture. But we can't do everything.

"One hand can't clap alone," he said. "Please pray with us."

An evangelical Christian in Baghdad echoed the priest's request as he spoke to a Western visitor and confirmed that the church in Iraq knows their ultimate deliverance will not come from governments or the lifting of sanctions.

"We feel isolated, but we depend on God," he said. "Your coming gives us hope."

With reporting by Jeff Taylor in Baghdad

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.