Today's Wisdom

Those who do not pass from the experience of the cross to the truth of the resurrection condemn themselves to despair! For we cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power
Pope Francis

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Historical Development and Eradication of Christianity in Iraq

The dire situation of Christians in Iraq is not something that happened overnight. It took many centuries of persecution and displacement by force as the price of division among Christians themselves.

Apostolic Roots 
The Christian movement grew out of Jerusalem  after the Ascension of Christ and the reception of the Holy Spirit by the Apostles and their companions at Pentecost. The first task the Apostles undertook was to preach the good news of Christ to their fellow Jews in the Temple and in other cities in Judea.

In the first, second and third centuries AD Christians became involved in a life-and-death struggle with the Roman empire's pagan culture. They were required to sacrifice to the pagan idols and if they refused they often had to be thrown to hungry lions for the crowds to enjoy them being eaten alive in the Colosseum theaters. Ignatius, martyr and the third Bishop of Antioch, experienced this end around 107 AD under order by Trajan, the Roman emperor (98-117 AD), because he was Christian ...Nero had crucified Christians accusing them of burning Rome in 64 AD. He is remembered in Apocalypse (attributed to John the Apostle) as the "Beast" who will come back and his mark is 666, a transliteration of Nero's name in Greek (Revelation 13:18). According to Christopher Dawson, the main achievement of the Church was "the successful domination of the urban Roman-Hellenistic culture." In spite of intermittent persecutions, the Church, nevertheless, became the greatest creative force in the second and third centuries culture.

This is the age of Clement and Origen in the East and Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian in the West. On theologians of the 2nd and third centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that they could take the Apocalypse of John as their model and repudiate pagan thought just as they repudiated the imperial cult; or they could seek out, within classicism, analogies to the continuity-discontinuity which all of them found in Judaism. According to him, the most comprehensive of apologetic treatises was "Against Celsus" by Origen (Cf.  Pelikan: "The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 - The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition" P. 27). From a sociological perspective Christianity proved to be not a mere sectarian cult but a real society with a high sense of citizenship.

Thomas and Thaddaeus sent to India
There is evidence that the ancient Church in the East expanded through the Apostles Thomas and Thaddaeus as far as India. The Assyrian Church of the East, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India, and the Chaldean Catholic Church claim historical presence in the lands by the lineage of their patriarchs, but especially that the Eucharistic prayer in the Divine liturgy of Addai (Thaddaeus) and Mari dates back to 3rd-century Edessa near Cappadocia (See map).

Large-scale Divisions
Yet, Christian leaders failed to maintain unity. In the 5th century, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, understood (or rather misunderstood) the true nature of the incarnation of the Word. He preached that in Christ there were not only two natures but also two persons: one from God (the Word) and one created like men who was born of the Virgin Mary. If this is followed, then the Virgin Mary could not be called Theotokos (Mother/bearer of God). For this understanding, Nestorius was excommunicated at the Council of Ephesus under the leadership of St. Cyril in 431 AD, after securing the support of the Pope of Rome. Nestorius was exiled and his followers escaped to Persia and Assyria, the enemies of the Byzantine Christians. It was an opportunity to preach Christ to pagans. Assyria became the center of Christianity in the East. The Nestorians went as far as India. But their numbers dwindled over time.

The Islamic Conquests
In the 7th century. Muslim invaders from Arabia conquered Assyria and ruled it, but for a few centuries Assyrian Christians, including scholars and doctors, played a significant role in Iraq.  By the 8th century Muslims were already divided and each sect attacked the other to regain power of the Islamic Caliphate. Numerous Christians who were not rich enough to pay  the Gezya tax as Dhimmis lost their lives unless they accepted to convert to Islam. 

The Abbasid Caliphate centered its government in Kufa, but in 762 AD the Caliph Al-Mansour founded, and moved his capital to, the city of Baghdad close to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Baghdad became a center of learning in science and philosophy that included a large library. The growing dominance of Islam expanded throughout the Middle East and threatened the Christian dominance in Europe when Muslims invaded Spain. To reduce tensions with the Islamic Caliphate and secure trade with the East, the Catholic Frankish Pepin entered into negotiations with the Abbasid Caliph in 762 AD. In 800, as the Roman Emperor Charlemagne was crowned, ambassadors from the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid arrived in Rome and delivered the keys of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem to the new Emperor (Einhard, "Annales", ad an. 800 in "Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script.", I, 187).

More Massacres
In 1258, Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols under Hulago Khan. The Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan in Central Asia, spread over most of Eurasia, Russia, China, and the Middle East. In their conquests, large-scale slaughters of local populations took place. Many Christians in Iraq and Syria were massacred, but their remnants managed to survive. Northern Iraq remained predominantly Assyrian Christians who maintained the Aramaic language in their liturgy. By the 14th century, the Assyrian Church of the East existed in the so-called Assuristan (Sassanid), and twelve Nestorian dioceses extended from Peking (Beijing) to Samarkand. However near the end of the 14th century, the Muslim Mongol warlord Tamerlane (Timur) conquered Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. Timur had 70,000 Assyrian Christians beheaded in Tikrit and another 90,000 in Baghdad. Following the massacres of Tamerlane, the episcopal see of Ancient Assyria was moved to Alqosh in the Mosul region and Patriarch Mar Shimun IV Basidi (1437-1493) made the office of the patriarch hereditary.

Reunion with Rome?
In 1552, a group of Assyrian bishops from the Northern regions of Amid and Salmas challenged the hereditary c laim of the office of the patriarch and elected Mar Yohanan Suluqa as a rival patriarch. Suluqa was received by the Pope in Rome who in 1553 consecrated him Mar Shimun VIII, Patriarch of the Chaldeans. The link with the Roman Church proved providential as missionaries increased and churches were opened. In the 20th century, the Catholic Church opened a dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East. In 1994 Saint Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East signed a common Christological Declaration in which both recognize the legitimate different expressions of Christian dogma on the incarnation of the Word of God and recognize the attribution of Theotokos (Mother of God) to the mother of Jesus.

The New Massacres
The 20th century Iraq was also dominated by political rivalries between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.  Under the Baath Party, dictators governed Iraq for the 2nd half of the century but Christians were mostly secure. In a prolonged war between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran that started in 1980 and ended in 1988, Iraq sought to protect its territories especially because of fear of Shia insurgency in Iraq after the establishment of a Shiite Islamic government in Iran but each lost significant military forces and each withdrew to its territorial boundaries.

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait under the pretext that Kuwait was stealing Iraqi petroleum through slant drilling when Iraq needed to pay creditors for money borrowed to finance the Iran-Iraq war. Kuwait's over-production of petroleum kept Iraqi revenues low. In 1991, the United States led a coalition of nations to liberate Kuwait by armed forces and was able to liberate Kuwait and destroy much of Iraq's forces. In 2003, against the moral voice of Saint Pope John Paul II,  the Unites States and allies invaded Iraq stating that it was bringing in democracy to Iraq. The Baathist regime was overthrown and over a few years new governments were formed which were never able to establish security of minorities the country against violent insurgents. Due to continuing threats to their survival, many Iraqi Christians were displaced, settled in other more tolerant countries or became refugees in the West.

In October 2010, Catholics attending Mass in Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church near Baghdad were shot dead by Islamic fundamentalists. And since January 2011, the so-called Arab Spring, supported by the United States government of Barack Obama and Western European powers, caused more violence and divisions along sectarian lines where radical Islamists attacked the religious minorities of Christians and their churches in much of  the Arab world. By 2012, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt had fallen to the Muslim radicals known as the Muslim Brotherhood but Egypt alone was restored to civil government with the help of its army in July 2013. For some 4 years, a sectarian war has been raging in Syria between the government's army (Muslim Alawites) supported by Shiite Hizbullah and armed by Russia against Sunni Muslim radicals supported and financed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is an extremist group of Islamists supported by some Muslim organizations across the globe. It is the latest threat yet to global civilization and security. The IS cruel killing of its opponents started to grow in Iraq in 2013 under the pretext that Sunni Muslims were not given a fair treatment by a majority Shiite government. A splinter group of al Qaeda, its ambitious strategy is to demolish civilizations and cultures that do not implement a strict interpretation of Islamic Sunni Sharia as their laws. While IS targets all nations, its command is to destroy Christianity and Judaism since the are considered infidels

Today's Quote

"Behold I make all things new." (Revelation 21:5)


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