The Christians of Iraq

Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:13 March 2021/Last Updated Date:31 August 2021

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Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq (March 5-8, 2021)[1] will bring to the attention of Christians around the world and of the international community the issue of the survival of Christian communities in Middle Eastern regions that, because of wars, tribal conflicts and poverty, risk disappearing forever. These are very ancient communities, many of apostolic foundation. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Iraq and founder of the Catholic University of Erbil, said in a recent interview: “Before 2003 there were more than 1,300,000 Christians in Iraq. Today fewer than 300,000 remain. Where there is no work and rights are not guaranteed to minorities, and with security lacking, flight and diaspora are unfortunately the choice of many.”[2] This is the current situation, although, as we shall see, the emptying of the Middle East of its Christian inhabitants has been going on for much longer.

The phenomenon of Christian migration in the last century involves almost all the countries of the Middle East, from Turkey to Egypt, passing through Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and, in recent times, in a worrying way, Iraq. Here are some discouraging facts about the size of this exodus: toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, in 1914, Christians were about 24 percent of the population, and reached 30 percent in the area of the so-called “greater Syria”; in the 1990s in the Middle East, Christian residents were less than 5 percent.[3] Today, following the wars in Iraq and Syria, and after the crisis in Lebanon, their numbers have again very much decreased. This means that this region has been deprived of a culturally and spiritually very rich presence, which contributed to creating the national identity of those countries.

In some of these countries, the independence obtained in the years following the Second World War had kindled in the intellectual elites and political activists, both Muslim and Christian, the hope of being able to establish in their own countries secular, democratic state systems, thus transitioning from an archaic form of government based on privilege (and often on abuse), to more modern systems, up to that moment strongly claimed by nationalist movements. In these countries, however, the newly implanted democratic order generally had a short and difficult life, and authoritarian forms of government, marked by strong nationalism, rapidly emerged, especially in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

La Civilta Cattolica

At this point, the Christian communities, which at first had believed in the possibility of establishing democratic state systems in the region, respectful of ethnic and religious diversity, and which had contributed at various levels to their potential realization, faced their first burning disappointments. In many of those countries the Islamic religious element, or simply the ethnic and tribal one, imposed itself under the pressure of movements animated by ideas of religious reform – such as, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafism – sometimes under the auspices of radical Islamism. The proclaimed secularity of the State, often defended only verbally, was substantially emptied of meaning when Islamic law, the Sharia, was declared, even at a constitutional level, to be the main source of national legislation, and Islam was installed as the official religion of the state.

Consequently, in Egypt, the predominance of Muslims over Coptic Christians appeared; in Syria, that of the Alawites (a minor branch of the Shiites, to which the Assad family belongs) over other ethnic-religious communities; for a time in Iraq, that of the Sunni minority, headed by Saddam Hussein, over the country’s Shiite majority. Moreover, it must be remembered that, since the 1970s, Iraq and Syria had been governed by members of the Ba‘ath party, founded by the Greek Orthodox Michel Aflaq, so that, alongside a markedly authoritarian exercise of power, a framework of institutional secularism had been maintained that formally ensured equal treatment for all religious communities, but, in reality, non-Muslims were considered and treated as second-class citizens.

In the years following the Second World War, there was a massive migration of Christians from the countries of the Middle East, including Iraq. Christians, because of their more modern cultural formation and openness to liberal ideas, felt more intensely the lack of freedom and the situation of social inferiority to which they were subjected by Islamic-nationalist regimes; for this reason many of them took refuge in the West, in the hope of improving their quality of life.

During the years of Saddam Hussein’s government, paradoxically, the situation for Christians seemed at least partially stabilized. Certainly, the difficulties in building or repairing churches continued, as did ghettoization, and the pan-Arab policy of the Ba‘ath party led to the prohibition of teaching Syriac and the imposition of Arabic names in place of Christian ones (with formal “Arabization” of Chaldeans in official documents).  However, on the whole, Saddam focused on eliminating Kurdish and Shiite opponents (in the first case through ethnic cleansing) and was tolerant toward Christians. It is not by chance that he chose as his foreign minister and vice prime minister Tariq Aziz (whose real name is Mikhail Yuhanna), a moderate Christian intellectual whose primary function, beyond his political responsibility, was to reassure the Western world about the situation of “freedom” of Mesopotamian Christians and the benevolence of the regime toward them. As a consequence, the Christian community, well represented in the north of the country, ended up in the sights of the Kurdish rebels, who destroyed numerous Christian villages between 1978 and 1980 under the pretext that they were “allies” of Saddam.

The first Gulf War did not have particularly devastating consequences on Christians, at least not from a numerical point of view: most of them, in fact, decided to join their relatives who had already emigrated, causing an acceleration in the continuous hemorrhage of Chaldeans and Syrians that from the beginning of the 20th century to the present has caused their numbers to drop significantly.

After Saddam, in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion and the advent of the Islamic State in 2014, waves of sectarian violence were unleashed against “heretics and apostates,” especially Shiites and Christians of all denominations, forcing many Christians to flee the regions they had occupied for centuries.

Iraqi Christianity: a mosaic of ancient Churches

Before dealing with this topic, it is appropriate to analyze, on a historical level, the main characteristics of Iraqi Christianity and to see how it is present throughout the vast territory of Iraq. The Christians are an integral part of the current population of Mesopotamia, who in turn descend from the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Chaldeans and Assyrians. Most of them, in addition to Arabic, still speak the Suret language, similar to that spoken by Jesus and his first disciples. It is therefore an autochthonous Christianity with an apostolic heritage. In fact, these regions were probably evangelized as early as the first century. Christianity spread through the Persian Empire progressively, but never became the majority or dominant religion. The evangelizer par excellence of those regions was, according to tradition, Saint Thomas the Apostle, assisted in his missionary work by his disciple, Addai. The true founders of the Eastern Church were, however, Addai’s disciples, Haggai and, above all, Mari, who founded the episcopal see of Kohe, near Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the two imperial cities, where the ruins of one of the most ancient churches in the world can be found.

This Church expanded until the 15th century, embracing a large number of regions extending from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River to Southeast Asia (Mesopotamia, Persia, the Gulf States, India, China and Mongolia). Some 250 dioceses and hundreds of monasteries and hermitages were founded. The invasion of Tamerlane, a Mongol, at the end of the 14th century, stopped the expansion of Christianity to the Far East, reducing its presence for the most part back to the Mesopotamian regions, from which the expansion had begun.

These territories in the 7th century were conquered by Islam and ruled by several dynasties. Baghdad was also the seat of the Caliphate for several centuries; then, in the 16th century, that region was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The few but lively Christian communities that continued to survive in those now Islamized territories were guaranteed and protected by a particular statute – that of the dhimmi – and, as such, were obliged to pay a protection tax.[4]

How many Christians lived in that region? It has never been easy to calculate the number of Christians present in Iraq, as indeed in other Arab countries. In fact, in most of those countries there was a tendency on the part of authoritarian governments to reduce the number of Christians living there as much as possible, for propaganda reasons.[5]

For the years preceding the fall of Saddam Hussein, we only have unofficial data about the Christian situation: out of a total of about 25 million inhabitants, the number of Iraqi Christians must have been around 700,000, 70 percent of whom belonged to the Chaldean Catholic Church, under the jurisdiction of a patriarch residing in Baghdad. According to church sources, the number was about 1.5 million.

In addition to the majority Chaldean Church, there are four other Catholic Churches in Iraq: Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Latin and Greek Melkite. In the country there are also two Oriental Patriarchal Churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, whose patriarch, His Holiness Mar Gerwargis III Sliwa, changed the seat of his diocese from the USA to Iraq, and the Ancient Church of the East, headed by Patriarch Mar Addai II Shleemon Ghervargeese, who is resident in Baghdad. In addition, there are the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and the Presbyterian and Baptist Churches. Therefore, the Iraqi Christianity is a true mosaic of communities, which for several years have collaborated, in a spirit of fraternity, with ecumenical commissions,  in order to agree on a common plan of understanding to be submitted to government authority.

The emigration of Christians from the Middle East

The emigration of Middle Eastern Christians is not a specific phenomenon of the 20th century: in fact, it began at the end of the 19th century and continued until the First World War. After a period of slowdown, which coincided with the so-called “Arab nationalism,” in which many Christian intellectuals actively participated, emigration resumed with greater intensity in the 1970s and is still ongoing.[6]

The first substantial migration, which brought several thousand Eastern Christians to North and South America, began in the late 19th century. Those Christians came primarily from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. They were usually listed simply on their identity documents as “Syrians” or by the slightly derogatory term “Turks.”

Already in 1914, on the eve of the First World War, the Christians who had left the East numbered about 350,000, two thirds of whom had reached the United States of America, while a third had gone to the various countries of Latin America.[7] It should also be remembered that at times it was inter-communal or sectarian conflicts that induced Christians to leave their homeland (emblematic was the anti-Christian violence of 1860 in Lebanon and Syria), while at other times the motivations were political or economic.[8]

The second wave of migration, more substantial and lasting than the previous one, began immediately after World War II. “It was above all military conflicts, and this time not only the inter-communal struggles between Muslim factions, that determined the exodus of Arab Christians from their lands of origin.”[9] Thus the Arab-Palestinian war of 1948, after the formation of the State of Israel, caused the exodus of about 60,000 Christians, thus emptying the “Holy Land” of its ancient Christian communities.

In the last decades of the 20th century a new exodus of Middle Eastern Christians was caused by the wars between states: the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980 and the first Gulf War in 1991 between Iraq and an international coalition composed of 35 states under the auspices of the UN and led by the United States of America. In the 1990s, more than 40,000 Chaldean Catholics left Iraq and emigrated to the United States. The exodus of Orthodox Assyrians, which began in previous years, has intensified in recent times. It seems that 60 percent of them live dispersed in various Western countries. A substantial community of Assyrians is now in Chicago.[10] Even during the regime of Saddam Hussein, many Christians, for various reasons, continued to emigrate, generally via Jordan.

The war against Saddam Hussein and the situation of Christians in Iraq

As far as Iraqi Christians were concerned, in addition to the migrations mentioned above, it was the continual expulsions, and at times violence or persecution, that led them to abandon the villages where they had lived for centuries and to find shelter in neighboring regions or countries or, often, to undertake the journey to other continents. From this point of view we can distinguish, summarily, two periods.

The first concerns the American-led war against Saddam Hussein, in particular the 2003 attack after the September 11, 2001, attack on the Twin Towers. This was a war that was presented as a reaction against the al Qaeda terrorist group, responsible for the terrible attack on U.S. soil, financed by the Saudi billionaire of Yemeni origin, Osama bin Laden.[11]

The second period corresponds to the creation, by the Islamic State, of the so-called Caliphate of Mosul (June 2014). In fact, after the execution of Saddam Hussein, the al-Qaeda terrorist movement – and later “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” – developed in Iraq, from which, with its expansion into Syrian territory, the Islamic State was born. From the beginning, it was made up of violent Sunni militiamen – led by the Jordanian Mus’ab al-Zarquawi – many of whom had been soldiers and officers in Saddam Hussein’s army. Their aim was the reconquest of Iraq, by now in American hands, by the Sunni forces and, consequently, the fight against the hated Shiites and the Christians, both invaders and residents.[12]

In the period following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime (March 2003), the situation of Christians in Iraq became very difficult, due to infighting among Muslims and the rise in the country of an Islamic fundamentalism that was increasingly aggressive toward the invader. Since 2003, moreover, the conditions of Christians had clearly worsened. The confusion that reigned in the country after the military intervention led by the United States gave free rein to the hatred of the Muslim majority and, above all, the historical identification of Christians with the Western “crusaders” put them in the crosshairs of all the terrorist groups, with the result that they were often “besieged,” not only by Sunni radicals, but also by Shiite militias, who badgered them with threats to leave the country, even though they were born Iraqi.

In those years many Christians left Iraq, taking refuge mainly in Jordan and Syria. At that time Wael Suleiman, executive director of Caritas International in Jordan, said: “Today the Christians in Iraq are a minority reduced to a trickle, threatened and persecuted daily […]. Where until recently there were entire Christian neighborhoods, now there are only a few families who, if they leave home to visit relatives, for example, risk not being able to return to their homes, which will have been occupied by Muslims. For them, life in Iraq is over.”[13]

According to some estimates, at least 200,000 Christians left Iraq in those years to seek refuge abroad, meaning that many once thriving communities were destined to die. Religious authorities at the time wisely advised Christians to abandon the big cities – Baghdad and Mosul – which were generally more subject to Islamist influence and therefore more exposed to guerrilla activity, and to move to the Kurdistan region, which was considered safer because of its seemingly stable government. In some small towns the government had even set up accommodation to receive a certain number of Christian refugees. Many families settled in the Kurdish city of Erbil.

Between 2003 and 2004, in the region of Mosul – the ancient Nineveh – about 100 Christians were killed by Islamic fundamentalists, and in the same period several Christian places of worship were attacked at the same time. With the passing of the years, these attacks became more insidious and dangerous. On August 1, 2004, six churches were struck simultaneously in Mosul and Baghdad, causing 10 deaths and 50 injuries. On February 23, 2008, the Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul, after celebrating the Way of the Cross in a church, was kidnapped and then killed, along with three companions, by a group of unidentified guerrillas. On July 11-12, 2009, more churches were attacked in Mosul and in the capital. On October 31, 2010, in the Syrian Catholic cathedral of Baghdad two priests and 47 faithful were killed. These events aroused great emotion in the country and throughout the Christian world.

The killing of several ministers of religion in Mosul and Baghdad at that time attracted the attention of the Western media: after years of “media blackout” on the grave situation of Christians in Iraq, the serious problem began to come into focus. Pope Benedict XVI also spoke several times about the difficult situation of Christians in Iraq, making heartfelt appeals to the international community and to Christians all over the world so that the cry of suffering of this “martyr Church” – as he called it – would be heard and accepted.[14]

Iraqi Christians under the Islamic State

In 2014, as ISIS militiamen advanced into northern Iraq, bringing destruction and death everywhere, 120,000 Christians fled the city of Mosul and the plain of Nineveh. Most of them, to escape the devastation, took refuge in well-defended Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly in Erbil.

The Nineveh region was then liberated, between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, by the international coalition supporting the Iraqi army, which was joined by Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga (armed forces), and Christians little by little were able to return to their homes. In Qaraqosh, a small urban center 30 kilometers from Mosul, known to be the stronghold of Christianity in the country, “it is estimated that more than 25,000 Christians have returned, 46 percent of those who inhabited the city before the invasion of ISIS in August 2014.”[15] In other nearby villages, Christians have also returned and taken possession of their homes, mostly destroyed, and their property. In Karamlesh 26 percent of the exiles have returned, while in Telskuf more than 70 percent of residents, the highest percentage in the area.[16]

As soon as they returned to their villages, Christians began to rebuild the destroyed houses (more than 35 percent) and the many burned and desecrated churches. The leaders of the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church communities had already in March 2017 set up the Committee for the Reconstruction of Nineveh, which aimed to rebuild what had been destroyed or demolished by the ISIS militiamen and, at the same time, to restart life in the villages, re-institute worship and thus facilitate the return of other Christian refugees to the areas governed by the Kurds.

Despite this, as Archbishop Warda said, to date the security conditions in Iraq are not sufficient to allow Christian families to return with peace of mind to their homes. “Both at the local level,” said the prelate, “and at the international level, there is a lack of will to impose a fair solution to the wrongs suffered and to protect those who alone cannot defend themselves. If this trend is not reversed, the Christian community could become completely extinct in the next 30 years.” Christians and the international community cannot allow this. Helping Christians in the Middle East to remain in their land peacefully is everyone’s duty.

An invitation to Christians to persevere even in the current difficulties came from Pope Francis, who had already said in a speech in November 2013: “We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians, who for 2,000 years have confessed the name of Jesus, and have been fully integrated as citizens into the social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong.”[17] To show his closeness to those populations, the pope wanted to travel to the Middle East, and in particular to Iraq.

Without Christians, the Arab Muslim world will no longer be the same: it risks becoming totalitarian and subservient to the will of tyrants of the moment.[18] In fact, what we are witnessing today is a real ethnic-religious reconfiguration of the region – this is true for both Iraq and Syria – a sort of ethnic cleansing to the detriment of all minorities, where the religious factor is used as a pretext for political mobilization and the acquisition of power. “Emptying the East of its Christians,” wrote Tareq Oubrou, Grand Imam of Bordeaux, “would be tantamount to depriving the Arab-Muslim world of an inestimable human wealth.”[19]

It seems useful to conclude with a consideration from Pope Benedict XVI’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, which remains a key summary of the Catholic Church’s vision for the region: “A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region. All are responsible before God for one another. Thus it is important that politicians and religious leaders appreciate this and avoid those policies or partisan strategies which would result in a monochromatic Middle East that would be completely unreflective of its rich human and historic reality” (No. 31).

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 3 art. 9, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0321.9

[1].    This apostolic journey constitutes an extraordinary sign of closeness and affection from Pope Francis toward one of the Middle East Christian communities most tormented by terrorism and war and, recently, hard hit by the pandemic. This trip had been one of the dreams of John Paul II, who could not realize it because of the difficult political situation of those years. Francis was invited to Iraq by the President of the Iraqi Republic and the local Catholic Church. His itinerary includes Baghdad, the Plain of Ur (in memory of Abraham), Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the Plain of Nineveh. For Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, the pope’s visit to Iraq is a source of great joy and hope for all Christians in the East. He recalled that at this moment there are two great challenges to face: the pandemic, with its repercussions in the economic sphere; sectarianism and fundamentalism, which, although defeated militarily, are not defeated as an ideology and are a constant cause for concern. Cf. M. Muolo, “Il Papa dal 5 all’8 marzo in Iraq”, in Avvenire, December 8, 2020.

[2].    G. Vernetti, “L’arcivescovo caldeo in Iraq Warda: ‘Noi cristiani siamo i più perseguitati. Europa e Stati Uniti ci salvino’”, in la Repubblica, December 7, 2020.

[3].    Cf. A. Pacini, Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo. La sfida del futuro, Turin, Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, 1996, 9. According to other sources, in 1900, in the Middle East, Christians were 12.7 percent of the population; today they are only 4.2 percent, and by 2050 they are expected to be just 3.7 percent. One analyst wrote: “The displacements, the exoduses within the region are turning into a flight to other continents. A definitive emigration” (V. Nigro, “Guerre, persecuzioni, crisi economica: i cristiani in fuga dal Medio Oriente,” in la Repubblica, December 7, 2020. Cf. P. Rodari, “Il viaggio del Papa in Iraq, per i cristiani d’Oriente: ‘Un messaggio di pace’”, ibid., December 8, 2020).

[4].    Cf. G. Sale, “Christians in the Caliphal Empires”, in Civ. Catt. En. March, 2021, at

[5].    The official Iraqi Yearbook of 1939, that is of the period of the British mandate, indicated three ethnic groups present in the territory: Arabs (79 percent); Kurds (16 percent); Turkmen (2.25 percent), while it did not mention the Persian minority. The most practiced religions were Islam (94 percent), Christianity and Judaism. The number of Christians, also called Chaldeans, was 98,800, distributed in some important cities: Mosul (40,000), Baghdad (about 20,000), Bassora, al-’Amarah, al-Kut, Zakho, Dihok, Amadiya, Kirkuk, Aqrah. Since the 1960s, following the “Kurdish war” and the development of radical Islamism in the small provincial centers, many Christians have progressively abandoned the city of Mosul and the northern villages to take refuge in Baghdad. See A. Pacini, Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo…, op. cit., 236.

[6].    Regardless of the events related to the founding of the State of Israel.

[7].    Cf. C. Issawi, “The Historical Background of Lebanese Emigration: 1800-1914”, in A. Hourani – N. Shehadi (eds), The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration, Oxford – London, The Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992, 31.

[8] .    The emigration of Arab Christians was also facilitated by their cultural and professional training, and by the fact that many of them had learned European languages, commercial sciences and mathematics in the schools run by missionaries. The time when their professionalism was used by European companies or financial-commercial enterprises, or in embassies or consulates as dragomans was long over. Cf. G. Sale, Isis, Islam e cristiani d’Oriente, Milan, Jaca Book, 2016, 154.

[9].    Ibid.

[10].   Cf. J.P. Valognes, Vie et mort des chrétiens d’Orient. Des origines à nos jours, Paris, Fayard, 407.

[11].   In October 2001, President Bush, together with Western allies and with the full support of the UN, in the name of the fight against terrorism and to avenge the American dead, attacked Afghanistan, which refused to hand over the people behind the attack on the Twin Towers: Mullah Omar and bin Laden. The Taliban regime was overthrown, but those targeted were never captured. It was not clear – and it still is not – why the U.S. president later targeted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, without a UN mandate and with the main operational support of Great Britain, toppled the regime in March 2003.

[12].   Cf. M. Campanini – S. M. Torelli, Lo scisma della mezzaluna. Sunniti e sciiti, la lotta per il potere, Milan, Mondadori, 2017, 99.

[13].   “Salvare i cristiani in Iraq: appello della Caritas Internationalis e di Aiuto alla Chiesa che soffre”, in Agenzia Fides, June 8, 2007.

[14].   The leaders of the Iraqi Church on several occasions have denounced the continuing violence perpetrated against Christians by radical Islamists, as well as the inertia and indifference of Western governments and the heads of the major humanitarian organizations in denouncing those attacks and remedying the situation. “For some time now,” Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly wrote in a report on Iraq, “in post-Saddam Iraq, Christians have been made the object of real persecution, and every day their daily experience is one of death. The violence of fundamentalists is unspeakable; their mercenary nature makes them terrible and dangerous criminals, whose actions end up being a horrible attack against human conscience and dignity and against all of humanity, as well as against God and against any teaching or religious principle included in a sacred text, whether Christian or Muslim” (G. Sale, Stati islamici e minoranze cristiane, Milano, Jaca Book, 2008, 191).

[15].   G. Anataloni, “Iraq: Il ritorno dei cristiani nella piana di Ninive, ricostruire dopo l’Isis”, in Missioni Consolata (, April 1, 2019.

[16].   Cf. ibid.

[17].   Francis, Address to Participants at the Plenary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, November 21, 2013, at

[18].   Cf. A. Riccardi, “Il difficile compito di evitare la fine dei cristiani d’Oriente”, in Corriere della Sera, March 3, 2015. With the disappearance of the Syrian and Iraqi Christians, we lose not something outdated and archaeological, but something very important and precious for all, namely the possibility of a peaceful coexistence between the two major monotheistic religions, founded on the common Abrahamic fatherhood. Today, some people claim there is a total incompatibility between Christians and Muslims, but this the international community cannot allow.

[19].   T. Oubrou, “Barbarie e blasfemia”, in I.M. di Falco – T. Radcliffe – A. Riccardi (eds), Il libro nero della condizione dei cristiani nel mondo, Milan, Mondadori, 2014, 94.