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The Disappearing Christians of Iraq and the Middle East

Christian communities in Iraq are some of the world’s oldest. Most Christians there today belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, but others are Assyrians affiliated with the Church of the East, or Syriac Orthodox. Though they speak Arabic, their native language is Aramaic. Prior to the U.S. invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Christians were secure in Iraq and made a significant contribution to Iraqi society. Basile Georges Casmoussa, the Syriac Archbishop of Mosul, notes that “Christians opened the first schools, the first publishing house, the first theater, the first hospital” in Iraq. However, Muslims have assumed Iraqi Christians are aligned with the U.S. because of their shared religion. In an eight-minute news video prepared for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a source for cutting edge reporting on religion and politics, correspondent Kate Seelye noted that “as law and order dissolved in the new Iraq, extremists filled the void. They accused Christians of being traitors, attacking their churches and businesses, and demanded that they convert to Islam.” Christians fled.

The disappearance of Iraq’s Christians would not be a first; neighboring Turkey once had a flourishing Christian community that is now virtually nonexistent, and Christians are abandoning Egypt and Palestine. “I think maybe in the next 50 or 70 years the Middle East will be empty from Christianity,” said Christian lawyer Hani Andrews. “If the United States administration declares that we are ready to give visas … to go to the United States for Christians in Iraq, I think at least 80 percent of what we have left of our population will leave the country to the United States.”

In a separate video, Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan, the Syriac Catholic leader, discussed the July 2014 religious cleansing of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. “It is a shame that in the 21st century we have such a kind of behavior. It’s mass cleansing based on religion. Not only on Christians, but on other religious minorities,” he said. The Syrian Christian population has dropped from 1.2 million to about 300,000.

“We have been here for millennia,” Patriarch Youssef said. “We don’t have any ambition to fight any people. …We have the right to live peacefully in the land of our forefathers, as we did for the last 2,000 years.”

For more, read “The Current Place of Christians in Islamic Pakistan“ and “Syrian Religious Conflict Spilling into Turkey,” two other news video reports from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly that address the religious conflict and growing intolerance based in Muslim extremism and regional politics. For perspective and tools to help you and your congregation learn about people of diverse faiths, see our feature article, “Understanding People of Other Faiths.”

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