In his poem, "The Destruction of Sennacherib," Lord Byron wrote, “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold.” Sennacherib was a king of the ancient Assyrian Empire that was located in what is now Northeastern Syria and Northern Iraq—the same territory the Islamic State claims as its own. The words echo today as the soldiers of the Islamic State descend on Iraqi Christians like wolves on God’s flock.
Today, the name “Assyrian” is claimed by an ancient Iraqi Christian group. The Assyrian Church of the East traces its history back to the apostles Thomas, Thaddeus and Bartholomew. During the Middle Ages, the Assyrian Church spread the gospel as far East as China and India. Following centuries of retreat, the twentieth century became an age of persecution for Assyrian Christians. Persecuted by the Muslims in Turkey, they fled to Iraq and Iran, and after further persecutions, many escaped to the United States. The head of the dwindling church, Mar Dinkha IV, is based in Chicago and seeks to nurture that portion of his flock that remains in the Middle East.
Assyrian Christians in the United States have been campaigning to raise awareness of the plight of their brothers and sisters in Iraq. The Christian Post reports, “Nearly 200,000 Assyrians from the Nineveh Plain have fled to the Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah areas, walking miles in extreme heat, after the capture of several Assyrian towns and villages by soldiers of the Islamic State. They are sleeping in churches, abandoned buildings, hostels, open fields and parks amid a shortage of food, water and other basic necessities.”
In the sixteenth century, a split occurred in the ancient Assyrian Church, leading to the formation of the Chaldean Church. Now the largest Christian group in Iraq, the Chaldeans established full communion with the Latin Church, and are one of the recognized Eastern Rite churches. The Chaldeans consist of about 500,000 Iraqis living mostly in the Northern part of the country. Like their fellow Assyrians, in the turmoil of the first world war, the Chaldeans were caught up in the Assyrian genocide, falling prey first to Kurdish and Turkish armies and then, in 1933, to the Iraqi army. Because a large number of Chaldeans and Assyrian Christians have escaped to the United States, those who remain are held suspect by the Islamic majority not only for their faith, but because of their ties to the USA.
In addition to the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldeans there are other smaller Christian groups: the Syriac Orthodox Church, an Eastern Orthodox church based in Syria; the Syriac Catholic Church that is in communion with Rome, and the Ancient Church of the East, a recent breakaway from the Assyrian Church of the East. There are also Armenian churches—one Eastern Orthodox and one in communion with Rome—as well as Greek Orthodox, Melkites, Catholics and Protestants.
In 2003. Christians in Iraq numbered about 1,500,000 and represented just over five percent of the population. Their percentage had fallen since 1987 when they were 1.4 million, or eight percent of the population. Since 2003, Christians of all denominations have endured extensive persecution. Their religious leaders have been abducted and murdered; they have endured threats of violence or death if they do not abandon their homes and businesses, and their churches and chapels have been bombed. Viewed as pro-American, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, their troubles have increased with the rise of militant Muslim Jihadists.
Now facing another wave of brutal oppression, the Christian population of Iraq is set to dwindle even further. As they flee for their lives, they leave behind not only their homes and livelihoods, but a rich cultural and religious tradition that extends back to the apostles themselves.
Last week, Pope Francis sent a special envoy to Northern Iraq to assist the refugees who have fled North to the Kurdish region. On Sunday, Pope Francis spoke for the whole Church when he expressed his “dismay and disbelief” at the violence against Christians in Iraq. Inveighing against the wolves descending on his flock he repeated, “All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried out in the name of God. War is not to be waged in the name of God."
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.