The Republic of Iraq is situated in the area known in ancient times as Mesopotamia, the site of the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.
Oil brought wealth to Iraq, but the 1980-88 war with Iran and the Gulf War (sparked by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990), followed by 13 years of UN sanctions, had a devastating effect on its economy and society.
The US-led invasion of 2003 (and the ousting of President Saddam Hussein) was prompted by Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Power was transferred to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004, followed by elected governments, but ongoing violence – most of it perpetrated by Sunni Muslim extremists against Shia Muslims and Christians – caused hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians to leave the country and displaced many more internally, particularly in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northeastern Iraq, which is governed by the Kurdish Regional Government, based in Erbil.
From summer 2014, Islamic State militants advanced across central and northern Iraq, causing terror, death and displacement. About 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced within the country since 2014, many to Erbil.
Christians in Iraq
Iraq’s Christian population once constituted one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, numbering about 1.5 million in 1990. Up to 80% of Iraq’s Christians have since left the country due to war and sectarian violence.
Most Iraqi Christians are Catholic or Orthodox and trace their history back to the first century. The evangelical community is small, with some members coming from Muslim backgrounds. Across the country, strong family and societal pressure against those who leave Islam is prevalent; in extreme cases, converts to Christianity face violence from family members.
Anti-Christian violence began after the first Gulf War (1990-91) and increased after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Under his regime Christians had been tolerated, but following the invasion sectarian rivalries erupted and Christians came to be perceived as Western collaborators. Islamist extemists killed hundreds of Christians and attacked several churches. Many attacks took place in the northern city of Mosul, site of the Biblical city of Nineveh, which had a relatively high proportion of Christians compared with other Iraqi cities.
Thousands of Christians fled to neighbouring countries or to the Kurdish region, where Christians do not experience the same level of persecution. Between 2003, when Islamic extremists began targeting Christians, and the end of 2010, at least 500,000 Iraqi Christians were driven out of Iraq and two thirds of Baghdad’s churches were either closed or destroyed.
In 2014, Islamic State (IS) seized control of large parts of the country, including the Nineveh Plains region where most of Iraq’s Christians lived. The militants committed terrible atrocities against the inhabitants – especially Christians and Yazidis – and destroyed large numbers of churches and monasteries.
Most of the large Christian community in Mosul (Iraq’s second city) and in the surrounding towns and villages on the Nineveh Plain fled in advance of the Islamic State takeover in June 2014; the rest left in July following an ultimatum that they convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or face death. Most fled to Kurdistan, where they received food and shelter from the local authorities, the United Nations and Christian charities. (Kurds are mostly Sunni but they reject the extremist Islam of IS.) Most of those who fled remain in the region, while others have left the country. In early August 2014, thousands of Christians fled the town of Qaraqosh – referred to as Iraq’s Christian capital – just before IS militants took control of the town.
Although Islamic State was militarily defeated in 2017, the vast majority of Christians have not returned to their homes because of damage, destruction and fear of unexploded bombs, suicide bombings by Islamic State sleeper cells and hostility from Muslim neighbours. In addition, Christians attempting to return to the Nineveh Plains in 2017 found themselves caught in the crossfire of fighting between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which led to a new wave of thousands of Christians fleeing to Kurdistan. This conflict arose as the Iraqi army sought to push the Kurds out of areas they had seized during the IS years, when the Iraqi army fled during the terrorists’ advance. A peace agreement was brokered between the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in October 2017.
In the capital, Baghdad, there has been a steady decline in the Christian population, mainly due to attacks or threats from various militia groups acting in a security void. The decline has led to the closure of several churches in the city.
It is estimated that of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in Iraq at the beginning of the 1990s, only 200,000 are left, and most of them are displaced.
Church in Chains in Action
Church in Chains sends aid to Iraqi Christians via partner organisation Steadfast Global. In April 2018, Malcolm Macleod of Steadfast Global visited Ireland to update Church in Chains supporters on the situation in Iraq and to tell them how their aid was being used.
The future is uncertain for the Christians driven from their homes in the Nineveh Plains region by Islamic State militants almost four years ago.
“Christmas Blessing”, an aid project for displaced Christians in northern Iraq, is underway.
Christians are beginning to return home to towns and cities in the Nineveh Plains region liberated from Islamic State militants.
A new report estimates that 50-80% of the Christian populations of Iraq and Syria have emigrated since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.