Christians in Iraq

The plight of Iraq’s Christians, first in Baghdad and Basra, later also in the northern city of Mosul, has attracted widespread media attention, especially in Christian circles. The abductions, the rapes, the threats and the church bombings resulted in the flight of many families to Syria, Jordan and Turkey, and, if possible to western countries. The Syrian Orthodox sister Hatune Dogan, who in 1980 at age fourteen was forced to flee from her homeland in eastern Turkey, describes in Es geht ums Überleben: Mein Einsatz für die Christen im Irak  her efforts to help these destitute and often traumatized Christians. She does so by listening to their stories and comforting them, but also by running a successful aid society that collects and distributes money and goods that will help the survival of these refugees. The most terrible stories sister Hatune recounts in her book come from the women, some of whom not only had to suffer the loss of fathers, sons or husbands, but in addition were subjected to the brutalities and humiliations of rapists, they themselves or their daughters. While the situation in Iraq appears to have improved somewhat (as Sr. Hatune herself describes in one of the last chapters of her book but perhaps does not give enough weight), and the Christians from Central and South Iraq that settled in the north of Iraq have a better life there then their compatriots in Syria or Jordan, life remains uncertain and insecure – not just for Christians, but for most of Iraq’s citizens, Christians and Muslims alike.

While this description of the refugees and their plight is an important contribution to recent history, those who want a broader and more analytical view of this ancient group of Christians in Iraq and their current situation, should consult Herman Teule’s volume (detailed yet imminently readable) on the Assyro-Chaldéens. The “Assyro-Chaldeans” – the combined name for the Christians of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Church – together make up the majority of Iraq’s Christian population and have been hardest hit by the violence of the years following the invasion of 2003. Teule, according to the format of the series Fils d’Abraham published by Brepols, in addition to his insightful comments on the post-2000 situation, also pays attention to the early history, the theology, the literature and the liturgy of these Christians.

For those who want more insight in the emergence of the Iraqi state, in the period following the First World War when the Hashemite Kings were instated by the British Mandate government, Orit Bashkin’s monograph is a good starting point. She describes the vibrant literary and cultural life of this period, giving a voice to Iraq’s intellectuals of all political and religious colors, showing that despite the problems of creating a viable and stable democratic regime, this period gave birth to a distinct Iraqi identity, different from other Arab identities and including, be it with difficulties, Shi`i and Kurdish versions of it. She also  stresses the essential pluralism of this emerging society, a pluralism so diverse that on the one hand it made a unified Iraqi nationalism practically impossible, but on the other precluded a priori vilifying of one particular community, be it Kurdish, Jewish, Christian or other. While not providing answers for today’s troubled political scene, Bashkin’s book forcefully underlines that those wanting to rebuild Iraq have a great variety of inspiring sources to refer to.  

Hatune Dogan, Es geht ums Überleben: Mein Einsatz für die Christen im Irak [It is about survival: my efforts for the Christians in Iraq] (Freiburg: Herder, 2010).

Herman Teule, Les Assyro-Chaldéens. Chrétiens d’Irak, d’Iran et de Turquie [Series: Fils d’Abraham, Turnhout: Brepols 2008).

Orit Bashkin, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

Photo: street in the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa, in Arbil, North Iraq, in July 2010, featuring a street named shlama, the Aramaic word for peace. 

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