Persecuted Church: Iraq

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Every month our ministry chooses a different country where Christians are being persecuted and we commit to pray for them, as you can see in the sidebar here on our website. The country we are praying for in June is Iraq. Much of the information regarding persecution in Iraq that I’ve included here comes from Open Doors USA’s World Watch Research Iraq: Country Dossier (WWR).

Country Background

In the past few decades, Iraq has periodically dominated headlines, and we have all had ample opportunity to read about the wars and sectarian conflicts that have raged in that region. The population of Iraq is almost 38.5 million. An overwhelming majority are Muslim at 97.5%, and the second largest religious group is agnostic, with 207,000 people. Christians come in third with 202,000, although historically they used to have a larger population, one which is historically significant as we will see.

The area which would later become Iraq has been a center of civilization from ancient times. Those who are familiar with the Bible will recognize the names Babylon, Ur, Asshur, and Nineveh. All of these ancient cities were located within what is now Iraq. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers along with their tributaries provided for the prosperity of agriculture, and this land would change hands as empires rose and fell in the area.

Christianity has strong historical roots in Iraq. The city now called Al-Mada’in is roughly the same location as the ancient Seleucia-Ctesiphon, which was the capital of the Persian Sassanid Empire. It was in this Iraqi city that the Church of the East was officially organized in AD 410 at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Christianity likely first arrived in the region by means of trade contacts and evangelism by the Syriac Christians. Additionally, in the third century the Sasanian king Shapur I conquered some of the eastern Roman lands where Christianity had a stronger foothold and deported certain inhabitants back into Persian-controlled cities: “Shapur I and his army advanced far into Roman territory and finally reached Antioch in 260. Many Christians from Antioch, Cappadocia, Cilicia, and Syria were deported to Persian provinces and established as tradesmen and artisans in Babylonia, Persia, Parthia, and Susiana” (http://www.peshitta.org/pdf/CoEHistory.pdf, pg. 9). By the time Shapur I had done this, there was already a Christian population in his lands, including modern-day Iraq. Today, it is still the Eastern churches which predominate among Christians in Iraq: the Assyrian Church of the East, Syrian Orthodox Church, Syrian Catholic Church, Chaldean Catholic Church, and Armenian Orthodox Church. Protestant missionaries didn’t arrive until the 19th century, and they failed to gain significant ground. Today, only 5% of Christians in Iraq are Protestant. The largest group is the Chaldean Catholic Church.

The modern predominance of Islam in Iraq goes back to the early years of the religion. The first conflict between Muslim fighters and the Sassanids was in 634, and within 5 years nearly all of Iraq had been conquered and became a province in the Muslim caliphate. Throughout the centuries there were many power struggles which took place within Islam, and Iraq, with its strategic location and natural resources, proved an important territory. During the Islamic Golden Age, Baghdad even took its place as one of the most prosperous cities in the world, a center of education and culture.

Controlled by feuding caliphs, then invaded by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, and others, Iraq was not able to return to its former glory. After World War I, Britain took control and consolidated the three formerly Ottomon provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra into the unified Iraq. In 1932, the nation gained its independence as a constitutional monarchy (which had been in place under British supervision since the early 1920s). Turbulent years followed, with internal power struggles and violence. In 1958, a group of young military leaders captured Baghdad by surprise and dissolved the monarchy, instituting a republic in its place. Strife among these military leaders led to a series of coups, the final one being in 1968, when Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was made president. He was more of a symbolic figure, since the one really making the important decisions was the vice president Saddam Hussein, who in 1979 became the president himself.

After Saddam surrendered to American troops in 2003, a variety of insurgent groups began to exert greater influence while authorities tried to organize a provisional government. Elections were held in 2005 and Muslim sectarian violence and political instability continued. In 2013 ISIL would form as a consolidation of members of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni militant groups. Although this group has been territorially defeated, they and other extremist groups still remain a threat to stability. Another current issue is the attempts of Kurdish minorities to establish an independent state in northern Iraq. Additionally there are concerns about Iran’s influences in the region, and especially their attempts to gain influence in the lands ceded by ISIL.

Persecution

In May of 2019, the Archbishop of Erbil said that Iraqi Christians currently face the very real threat of extinction: “Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest Churches, if not the oldest Church in the world, is perilously close to extinction. Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom. . . . In Iraq there is no redress for those who have lost properties, homes and businesses. Tens of thousands of Christians have nothing to show for their life's work, for generations of work, in places where their families have lived, maybe, for thousands of years.” The Archbishop lamented that the Golden Age, where Muslim caliphs tolerated minorities and engaged them in respectful dialogue, seems only a distant historical memory.

After America sent troops to Iraq during the Gulf War and the Iraq War, anti-Western sentiment flared up. This meant persecution for Christians, and this persecution was obviously exacerbated with the formation of ISIL. By 2016 many areas previously controlled by ISIL were reconquered (moreso by the end of 2017) and some Christians who had to flee were able to return to their homes, or what was left of them. However, there is still the threat of Islamic extremism which exists in these regions, and ISIL fighters have not been completely eliminated. A 2018 UN report found that there were still 17,000 ISIL fighters in Iraq. This figure does not include those who may be sympathetic to their cause, and it doesn’t include other extremist groups. Additionally, many Christians have been unable to return to their homes due to other parties jostling for control of land vacated by ISIL: “Land disputes make it very difficult for the majority of them to return to their homelands in the Nineveh plains. Iran-backed Shabak militias, Kurds, Arabs and others continue to occupy or expropriate lands of minorities in the Nineveh plains in a competition to gain control of the once multi-ethnic region. Christians are in the weakest position because of their now small numbers and lack of external support. The central government does little to ameliorate the situation and ignores pleas from community representatives” (WWR).

Prior to the first Gulf War, there were over 1 million Christians in Iraq, and their relations with their Muslim neighbors were for the most part peaceful, although there had been interruptions of violence such as massacres of Assyrian Christians in 1932 as retaliation for their collaboration with the British. With the increasing modern violence in the region, many Christians were forced to flee. Now there are only 202,000 Christians, which means around 80% of the population prior to the Gulf War has fled or been killed. Many of those who remain say that they would leave if given the opportunity, citing the violence, instability, and persecution. Leaving has become an especially attractive option for young people. “The current score for violence is still high and IS influence in the local population is still evident. Christians continue to be physically or mentally harmed, threatened and sexually harassed. Acts of violence against non-convert Christians were mostly committed by Islamic militants (mostly Shabak), whereas converts from Islam especially faced violence from their (extended) families. Although some Christian families have returned to their homes, the emigration of Christians is continuing due to fear and lack of hope for a good future” (WWR).

The current constitution (drafted in 2005) establishes Islam as the official religion and forbids the passing of any law which contradicts Islam. While Muslim supremacy is encoded in the constitution, it does also provide for a limited kind of religious freedom: “This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice such as Christians, Yazedis, and Mandi Sabeans”. This does not protect all religions, however, and Bahai in particular are not legally allowed to practice their religion, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Non-Muslim men are not allowed to marry Muslim women, and each citizen’s religion is indicated on their ID. Christians face discrimination of various kinds. They are frequently passed up for employment. Officials who hold extremist views may falsify documents to disadvantage Christians or make it difficult for Christians to complete necessary paperwork. Christian women may be harassed if they do not wear a head covering. Children born of mixed marriages will automatically be registered as Muslim. “In central and southern Iraq, Christians often do not publicly display Christian symbols like a cross as this can lead to harassment or discrimination at check-points, university, work-place or government buildings. Even Christians in the IKR [Iraqi Kurdistan Region] have reportedly removed the crosses from their cars so as not to attract unwanted attention” (WWR).

Under the constitution, conversions from Islam are not legally recognized. Converts also have a high risk of being threatened or harassed by extended family or their communities. Their extended family will likely put pressure on them to renounce their conversion, and in some cases converts have been killed. WWR reports that 3 converts were killed in the 2019 reporting period. Other threats include torture, home detention, forced marriage/divorce, and loss of custody over children. Thus, converts generally try to keep their faith secret. Otherwise, they may choose to move to a larger city where they are more anonymous or leave the country.

Christians are not allowed to evangelize and may face violence or harassment if they even bring up their faith in conversation. Those who are vocal about the persecution that Christians face may be threatened, and some have been killed. The historic denominations have had to tread a fine line in order to be tolerated by their neighbors, as one report notes: “Iraq’s Christians must work constantly to navigate a complicated network of sectarian and political interests. Influential priests in Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government, are quick to praise their Kurdish neighbors. The KRG has an interest in protecting the religious minorities within its territories; part of the Kurds’ pitch to allies in the West is that they are more tolerant and committed to pluralism than Arabs. Cross the line into Arab-dominated parts of Iraq, however, and priests’ allegiance switches: [one priest, named] Thabet told me he thinks the country should be under Baghdad’s unified control. Privately, Christians on both sides of the border complain about abuses by Arabs and Kurds alike, from land seizures to what they see as extremist sermons at local mosques.”

In modern Iraq, it is difficult for Evangelical or other Protestant denominations to form. Each denomination must be registered with the government, and in order to start a new denomination, the other officially recognized denominations must approve their application. The Orthodox and Catholic leaders are often very strongly against this, since they are very negative toward Protestantism, especially what they view as non-traditional forms. Christians who convert to a different denomination may face strong opposition from Christian officials and their own families: “In southern and central regions of Iraq, Christians who have moved from a Historical church community to join a non-traditional Christian group can face threats and opposition from family members, tribal leaders and society around them. These threats include the risk of losing employment, inheritance or the means to marry. Bishops of Historical church communities have also been known to refuse to hold weddings for members who have been visiting Evangelical churches. Families and community often disassociate themselves from such cross-denominational converts” (WWR). Unregistered denominations are not able to perform weddings or funeral ceremonies, and some of the historic Christian denominations refuse to perform these services for them.

How to Pray

Here are some specific ways you can pray for Christians in Iraq:

  • Pray that Christians in Iraq will be encouraged and protected despite the harsh difficulties and trauma they face.
  • Pray for an end to religious and sectarian violence in Iraq.
  • Pray that Christians will extend the love of Messiah to each other and to their neighbors while boldly sharing their faith.
  • Pray that ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs will be successful in providing Bibles to believers.
  • Pray that those who are sharing their faith will be protected and successful.
  • Pray that religious freedom will prevail in the nation.
  • Pray that Iraqis (including the persecutors) will come to know the truth and receive salvation through Yeshua.

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