The End of Christianity in Iraq, Part I: 1920-2003

March 6, 2017
In this series of articles, I endeavor to tell the story of how, in the last century, Christians in the Middle East have gone from being small but substantial minorities to a set of tiny communities on the edge of destruction – and the role of the United States in this story. The mandate of In All Things is “to explore the concrete implications of Christ’s presence in all facets of life.” It is my hope that in telling the story of the body of Christ – the church – in the Middle East, we can shed some light on this confusing and tortured region, and better understand the contradiction between America’s noble goals in the Middle East, and the terrible wreckage it has created there.

In Iraq, this story goes back to the beginning of Iraq as an independent country, and the rise of America as a superpower.

Church tradition holds that Christianity was first brought to Mesopotamia – what is today called Iraq – by the Apostle Thomas. The region has been home to Christians ever since. Northern Iraq in particular is dotted with ancient monasteries and shrines to Old Testament prophets like Nahum and Jonah. Al-Qosh, Nahum’s hometown, is a center of Christianity in Iraq today. Wise men from Mesopotamia were the first Gentiles to worship Jesus as King.

But if Christianity in Iraq is ancient, Iraq itself is very new. When Britain and France overthrew the Islamic Ottoman Empire in World War I, they divided much of the Middle East between themselves. Iraq was stitched together from the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Basra and Baghdad, and awarded to the British to rule over in 1920. Almost immediately, the British faced an uprising.

After the devastation of WWI, Britain simply did not have the men or the funds to send tens of thousands of troops to govern Iraq. So the British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, came up with a plan. Churchill wanted to use the new inventions of airplanes and armored cars to “enforce control, now here, now there, without the need of maintaining long lines of communications eating up troops and money.”1 And instead of setting up a full-blown colonial administration themselves, the British would install their ally Faysal, a prince from Mecca, as Iraq’s first king.

But Faysal had difficulty uniting his new country. Northern Iraq was home to the Kurds, whose leaders were resentful after being promised, and then denied, a state of their own after WWI. Faysal was a Sunni Muslim, but the majority of Arabic-speaking Iraqis were Shiʿite Muslims, who had strong ties to Shiʿite Iran. Many other Iraqis resented Faysal’s ties to the British Empire. The country needed a common enemy to unify against.

Faysal chose the Christians to be that enemy.

Most Iraqi Christians were and are Assyrians, who speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. (Different groups of what I call “Assyrians” sometimes refer to themselves as Chaldeans, Syriacs, or Arameans.) Before WWI, their villages were spread across what is today Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. During the war, tens of thousands of Assyrians left Iran and Turkey to escape massacre, and ended up in refugee camps in the new country of Iraq. Impoverished, non-Muslim, non-Arab, too small to put up a fight – for Faysal’s regime in Iraq, they were an attractive target.2

In August 1933, the Iraqi army surrounded the Assyrian village of Simele, and demanded that the residents surrender their weapons. Once they had, the killing began.

“My friends and I saw a plane fly into Simele and start firing on us,” one survivor recalled. “The women began making the young boys (including me) look like girls so they would not be killed. The third day after the killing began, they (some wearing Iraqi uniforms, some not) rounded up some Assyrians and said, ‘Either become Muslim or we will kill you.’”3

Over the course of a month, thousands of Christians would be captured and shot, killed in aerial bombings, burnt alive, raped, enslaved, or forced to convert to Islam. Four days before the attacks began, the British provided bombs to the Iraqi air force for use against the Assyrians.4 If the British could use Faysal to secure their power in Iraq, they deemed a few thousand Christian lives an acceptable price.

After World War II, the British Empire began to unravel and Communist Russia began to make troubling inroads in the Middle East. The U.S. responded by taking over the British’ role in the Middle East – including its alliances with anti-Christian rulers. In 1958, a military coup in Iraq overthrew Faysal’s grandson and brought a communist-friendly government to power. Five years later, the U.S. helped the Baʿath Party seize power in a countercoup. By 1979, the charismatic leader of the Baʿath had made himself president of Iraq. His name was Saddam Hussein.

The same year, the Shah of Iran, America’s ally, was overthrown. A revolutionary Shiʿite government took over in Iran, and began issuing calls for revolution across the region. As the Sunni leader of a neighboring country that was nearly two-thirds Shiʿite, Saddam saw the new Iranian regime as a mortal threat. So did the United States. Backed with American intelligence and weapons, Saddam launched a war against Iran – a war that would last eight years and kill nearly a million people.

Saddam used the war as an opportunity to attack Assyrian Christians, whose political organizations and insistence on a non-Arab identity he saw as a threat. Assyrian Christians found themselves drafted for the war more often than other groups. 40,000 of them never returned from the battlefields.5 During his genocidal “Anfal” campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq, Saddam also destroyed 120 Assyrian villages, and had over a thousand Christians murdered, including priests who refused to support his regime. At this time, the U.S. was giving the Iraqi government half a billion dollars a year, as well as the satellite photos they needed to plan attacks in northern Iraq.6

Even with all this destruction, a government census in 1987 found that there were still 1.4 million Christians in Iraq – 9% of the population, one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East.

Then came the Gulf War. On August 8, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Iraq’s tiny, oil-rich neighbor – and also an American ally. It was a nasty shock for the U.S. to see the Saddam turn on them, but with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, President George H. W. Bush saw a perfect opportunity to rally the world to a single cause and set the stage for an American-led world. The U.S. led over 30 nations into battle against the Saddam regime, and got the United Nations to impose some of the harshest economic sanctions in history on Iraq.

Even after Kuwait was liberated, these sanctions remained in place. For twelve years, the sanctions devastated Iraq’s economy and healthcare system. Child malnutrition rates skyrocketed. Estimates of the number of Iraqi children who died as a result of the sanctions range from 170,000 to over 500,000. In 1998, Denis Halliday, the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, resigned in disgust over the sanctions regime. “We are in the process of destroying an entire society,” he said. “It is as simple and terrifying as that.” According to William Warda, an Iraqi Christian leader, “For the first time in the days of the embargo, we had Christian beggars in the street” – an unthinkable development for a community that prided itself on its education and business expertise.

This massive collective punishment, however, was not enough to drive Saddam out of power. To do that, the U.S. would have to invade and occupy Iraq. It did so, on March 20, 2003.

Return to iAt on Tuesday, March 7, for the second part of Joel Veldkamp’s series on the end of Christianity in Iraq.
About the Author
  • Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student in history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He lived in Syria from September 2010-May 2011, and has worked for Christian Solidarity International since September 2011. His views are his own.

  1. David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 500. 

  2. Sargon Donabed, Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century, 99, 224, 228. 

  3. Donabed, 110 

  4. Donabed, 107 

  5. Donabed, 191. 

  6. Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, 182 

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