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The Church in Iraq: Its History and Challenges

Aleteia - published on 02/01/13

Many people are unaware that Mesopotamia has been a home to Christians since the first centuries

by Fr. Albert Hisham, Iraqi priest of the Chaldean Diocese of Baghdad

In the summer of 2009, I left Iraq for the first time to continue advanced studies at one of the pontifical universities in Rome. Usually in the first days, the professors want to get to know the new students who have come to Rome from all over the world. They ask the usual question: “What country are you from? Where do you come from?” My sense of pride grew stronger each time I responded, “I’m Iraqi, from Baghdad.” Often, however, I was taken aback by the look of surprise on peoples’ faces when they heard there was such a thing as an “Iraqi Christian”, and still more shocking – a priest! Once someone said to me, with a look of utter perplexity on his face, “You’re Iraqi? You mean … there are Christians in Iraq?” And someone else once said questioningly, “Are there still Christians left in Iraq?”

Many people, it would seem, are unaware that Mesopotamia has been a home to Christians since the first centuries; that the oldest Church in the Middle East, the Church of Cokhi, is located in southern Baghdad; and that archeologists in Najaf – a city dating back to the first centuries – have discovered many Christian tombs and monuments. Moreover, many are unaware that there are still Christians living in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, even though the wound of immigration afflicting the heart of Iraq continues to bleed. Iraqi Christians seek to live out a faith that is deeply rooted in their land, as their Muslim brothers and sisters can also testify.

St. Jude (also known as the Apostle Thaddeus) brought Christianity to Mesopotamia in the first century. There, as history tells us, the apostle first announced the good news, leaving behind him two disciples to carry on his missionary work. In the 4th century, the Church which had been established there suffered a severe persecution lasting forty years. Christians – who were at that time under the regime of the Persian Empire – were accused of pledging their loyalty to the Roman Empire in the West. Their refusal to adore kings and princes was also misunderstood and met with bitter persecution. The persecution claimed the lives of thousands of martyrs, including Patriarch Shimon Borsobai, who was condemned to death along with a great number of bishops and priests. They were killed on Good Friday.

As Islam arrived in the region, Christians bore witness to peaceful coexistence and respect for their differences. They also contributed significantly to the development of the scientific and cultural movements of the day, especially during the Abbasid Caliphate, when Baghdad became the capital of the country.  History confirms the notable role Christians played in the cultural exchange of the day.

The history of our Church, from one generation to the next and even until today, has been colored crimson by the blood of the martyrs. We take great pride in the blood these martyrs shed, for they braved even death and persecution in order that the faith might be handed down to us. Just as the faith spread across the globe in the first centuries, reaching even to China, so too are we full of hope that, in this day and age, the faith will reach the hearts of those thirsting for Christ (especially in this Year of Faith proclaimed by the Church in the person of Pope Benedict XVI).

Despite the difficulties and challenges that have marked its history from within and without, the Church of Mesopotamia has continued to offer testimony and martyrs to Christ. It has also preserved the particular qualities that have characterized it from its earliest days: it has maintained its catholicity in never becoming a nationalist Church, and it has preserved the Aramaic language (the language of Christ) and still uses it today. 

The Mesopotamian people have persevered in their love for the Church and remain faithful to her, amid the persecution they have suffered in recent years through acts of terrorism: Church bombings; threats; the kidnapping and killing of bishops, priests and faithful; pressure exerted on Christians to leave their homes; stripping Christians of their national identity in order to make them feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

These forms of persecution along with others have led more than half of the Christians in Iraq to leave their country in search of a future and of some sense of security. They leave searching for someone who values their lives, their identity and their history. There isn’t a church today that hasn’t lost more than half of its parishioners. A parish once formed of 3,000 families today numbers only 300, and they too are thinking about leaving as soon as possible. Christians today don’t emigrate for fear of bombs and mines, which at one time were placed even at the doorsteps of their homes – they leave because they need someone who will restore their identity.

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