The lead article in the November 2014 edition of Christianity Today posed the question whether Christianity in the Middle East is on the edge of extinction. Kimberly Smith looks at the decline of Christianity in the Middle East through the lens of the troubled nation of Iraq – a country which has rarely been out of the international news during 2014.
The Crisis in Iraq
For many centuries the Iraq of modern times has been referred to as the “cradle of civilisation” – a term describing the Tigris–Euphrates River Valley region of southern Iraq. Historians believe that the world’s first writing system emerged during the 4th millennium BC, during the time of the Kings of Sumer (i.e. southern Iraq). The Sumerians were the first to harness the wheel and create city states. Early writings of the time also record the first evidence of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, written law, medicine and organised religion.
A nation of continuous conflict
Conflict has been a characteristic of the Middle East ever since Sargon of Akkad conquered all the city states of southern and central Iraq and subjugated the numerous kings of Syria in 2200 BC.
During the 20th century BC the Canaanite speaking Amorites began to migrate into southern Mesopotamia and set up kingdoms in the south – one of which was the small administrative town of Babylon - which later became a major city in the region. Not long after Babylonia had been sacked by the Hittite Empire (around 1595 BC) another foreign invader from the Zagros Mountains of Iran invaded the region and ruled over Babylonia for almost 600 years.
Various Babylonian and Mesopotamian kings who followed were unable to prevent new waves of West Semitic migrants entering southern Iraq during the 11th century BC. Conquering Assyrian rulers later built an empire stretching from Persia and Parthia in the east to Cyprus and Antioch in the West – and from the Caucasus in the north to Egypt, Nubia and Arabia in the south. During the 10th and 9th centuries Babylon fell to yet another foreign dynasty - that of the Chaldeans. Around 325 BC Alexander the Great arrived on the scene . Yet another round of conflicts engulfed the Iraq region during the Roman-Parthian wars, the conquerors actively supporting Brutus and Cassius in the Roman invasion of Syria.
The Christian population of Iraq in 2013 was believed to be in the vicinity of 500,000 - down significantly from 1.5 million before the 2003 war. Following a mass exodus during 2014, some think as few as 200,000 are left today. The majority of the remaining Christians live in the far north of the country.
According to Religious Freedom in the World – 2014, by July 2014 jihadists will have driven out all faith communities from Mosul, including non-Sunni Muslims. Christians have been forced to choose between converting to Islam or leaving the region. They were given a deadline, and the Islamic State declared that if they failed to comply, “there is nothing for them but the sword”. A city of up to 30,000 Christians, Mosul suddenly had none – and for the first time in 1600 years there is now no Sunday worship in that city.
From the time of Jesus Christ, there have been Christians in what is now Iraq. The Christian community took root there after the Apostle Thomas headed east in the year 35. But now, after nearly 2000 years, Iraqi Christians are being hunted, murdered and forced to flee. Many churches have been destroyed or abandoned.
Not that the various churches in Iraq were ever in agreement theologically over the centuries. Operation World observes that Christianity in Iraq has for years been characterized by fragmentation – denominationally, ethnically and politically, despite the great opposition all Christians face. The majority are in the Catholic-linked Chaldean Church, but others are part of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestant denominations or even a Muslim-background believers’ network. OW’s Prayer Guide states that some in the historic denominations are being impacted by revival; others resent and oppose what they perceive to be aggressive proselytism, and a money-spinning focus of the newer Protestant groups.
Outreach to the Muslim majority remains a terrifying prospect to most, although compassionate ministry by some Christians to all in need sees many Muslims profoundly touched. Understandably many good leaders have fled the country – many others are dead, specifically targeted by Islamists. Christian leaders in Iraq invite us to pray for their equipping and enabling. With a young population and many Muslims coming to faith, leaders who are gifted in discipleship and teaching are crucial.
Pray for peace. Pray for Christians remaining in Iraq, and for the return of leaders who have fled, for the development of new leaders and for protection of all who shepherd God’s people in Iraq.
Kimberly Smith is a retired Melbourne chartered accountant now helping to establish the evangelical integral mission agency Anglican Relief & Development Fund Australia.