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. When Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, petroleum made up 95% of its foreign exchange earnings. However, the 1980-88 war with Iran and the 1991 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.
However, ongoing violence, most of it perpetrated by Sunni Muslim extremists against Shia Muslim and Christian targets, caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people, Muslims and Christians, to leave the country, and displaced many more inside Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan (the semi-autonomous Kurdish Autonomous Region in the north, governed by the Kurdish Regional Government based in Erbil). Lack of government control left militants free to act with impunity.
In June 2009 US troops withdrew from Iraq’s towns and cities, handing over security to Iraqi forces, and all troops left at the end of 2011. But the government failed to unite the country’s various communities and Iraq remained volatile, with armed factions, corruption in government and high unemployment contributing to instability, and an ongoing dispute with Kurdistan over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
From 2013 Iraq faced increasing Sunni rebelllion in Anbar Province, and in summer 2014 extremist rebels broke through to central Iraq. Since then, Islamic State (IS) militants have caused terror across central and northern Iraq. About 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced within the country since 2014; many are in Erbil.
Exodus of Christians
Most Iraqi Christians are Catholic or Orthodox and trace their history back to the first century. The largest Christian community is the Chaldean Catholic Church, followed by the Assyrian Church of the East. The evangelical community is small but growing, with many members coming from Muslim backgrounds.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the situation of Christians deteriorated. Under his regime Christians were tolerated, but following the invasion sectarian rivalries erupted and Christians came to be perceived as Western collaborators. Many were threatened and attacked by Islamist extemists: hundreds of Christians were killed and several churches were attacked. 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 as destitute refugees 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.
Advance of Islamic State militants
During 2014, the advance of the Sunni militant group Islamic State (also known as ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) brought terror across northern Iraq, as its extremist militants targeted Christians and other minorities. Islamic State emerged as the most brutal of the terrorist groups operating in northern Iraq, with a goal of creating a caliphate – an ultra-Islamic state – in Iraq and Syria.
So many Iraqi Christians have now fled the country that only an estimated 200,000 are left of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in Iraq at the beginning of the 1990s. Most of those who remain are displaced.
Most of the large Christian community in Mosul (Iraq’s second largest 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. Christian homes were spray-painted with the letter Nun, the first letter of Nasara (Nazarenes – used in the Quran to describe Christians), to identify homes to be taken. Most of the Christians who left took only what they could carry and fled to the relatively safe haven of Kurdistan – some 30,000 Christians already lived in the Kurdish capital Erbil, most of them Chaldean Catholics. Kurds are mostly Sunni but they reject the extremist Islam of IS, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces attempted to hold back IS forces.
The government had announced its support for the creation of a separate province in the largely Christian Nineveh Plains, with the aim of creating a home for Christians within Iraq, but the takeover of Mosul destroyed that hope.
In early August 2014, thousands of Christians fled for their lives from the town of Qaraqosh – referred to as Iraq’s Christian capital – just before IS militants took control of the town.
Iraqi army retakes Mosul, pushes out Islamic State
In 2015, the Iraqi army and allied forces began an offensive against Islamic State, regaining control of Tikrit in April 2015, Ramadi in February 2016 and Fallujah in June 2016. In March 2016, the army launched an offensive to retake Mosul, but this was unsuccessful. The attempt was launched again in October 2016, and thousands of civilians fled the fighting. Gradually, Christian towns and villages surrounding Mosul, like Karamles and Qaraqosh, were liberated, and eventually Mosul itself was liberated, in July 2017.
Church leaders were among the first inhabitants to return to Qaraqosh after it was retaken on 22 October 2016. With the help of soldiers, Father Ammar of the Syriac Catholic Church raised the cross again on the roof of his church. He said, “It was a wonderful day to see Qaraqosh. Yes, they destroyed and burned houses and churches but of course we will fix it again.”
On 9 December 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Iraq’s war against IS is over. He told a conference in Baghdad: “Our forces are in complete control of the Iraqi-Syrian border.” The Iraqi armed forces issued a statement saying Iraq had been “totally liberated”.
Uncertain future for Christians
Christians returning to the Nineveh Plains, however, are fearful and uncertain as to whether it is safe to rebuild their lives there. They fear the threat of suicide bombings by IS sleeper cells, and they have been caught in the crossfire of fighting between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which has 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 on 29 October, and two days later the Kurds started to withdraw from parts of the Nineveh Plains that were under their control. On 16 October, Iraq took back control of Kirkuk.
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.