I don’t know about some of you, but I can tell you that I’m pretty fed up. I’m fed up with so many of the recurring Church rows in the last 30 years over issues that are basically private and local. Not only have these controversies wasted time, money, and energy, but they’ve hampered our mission and hastened our decline. I’m fed up all the more when, at several points in the last three decades of Anglican feuding, all of our fuss and nonsense has been going on against a backdrop of Christians – some of them Anglicans – actively enduring persecution and martyrdom for their faith. And then we turn around (at Lambeth conferences, for example) and criticise them for not being enthusiastic about the issues that have so preoccupied us. I’m surprised sometimes that these heroes of the faith from abroad bother with us at all. Yet they do. It is a privilege to be in fellowship with them, such as our brothers and sisters in Iraq.
With the recent news reports from the Middle East, it may have surprised you to hear that there are ANY Christians in Iraq. In fact, the area, formerly known as “Mesopotamia”, and including ancient Babylon and Nineveh, appears many times in the Bible and has a Christian tradition going back at least1600 years.
In Genesis 2:10-14, we read that the Garden of Eden was located there, and in Genesis 11 we hear that the Tower of Babel was built there. Abraham was born there, at Ur of the Chaldees, Daniel lived in captivity in Babylon, and Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh, in what is now north-western Iraq. In the Book of Acts, we read that “residents of Mesopotamia” were present on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, when the Church was empowered to begin its mission by the Holy Spirit.
Missionaries were not slow to reach Mesopotamia, and the earliest churches were established in the first century. From the fifth century, theological, military and political developments served to isolate Mesopotamian Christians. They were regarded as out of communion with the main body of Christendom. Nevertheless, by the seventh century a large indigenous Christian culture was firmly established and thriving in the region, boasting two great theological schools, at Edessa and Nisibis. Its missions extended into Arabia, India, and possibly also China.
Even after the Arab conquest of the region, the prosperity of the non-Arab, indigenous Assyrian Christians remained. It continued after the Mongols conquered the Arabs. However, the conversion of the Mongols to Islam in 1295 brought drastic losses from which the Church never recovered. Even so, some Assyrian Christians remained in the north of the country (Kurdistan), slowly reducing over the generations by assimilation, persecution and emigration. Today the Assyrian Christian remnant is the oldest ethno-religious group in the country. Historically, the Arabs are comparative latecomers.
Until recent times, Iraq had an estimated one million Christians (3% of its total population). However, it is a community that has only ever known continuous reduction. That shrinkage has accelerated. Many Christians have fled Iraq, mostly in the aftermath of the first and second Gulf Wars, and, more recently, to escape the genocide of ISIS, Sunni Muslim terrorists trying to establish a hard-line Islamic state in the north of the country.
Iraqi Christians are referred to by their ethnic identity as Assyrians and divide evenly between the Ancient Church of the East, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox (52%) on the one hand, and the Chaldean Catholics (48%) on the other, who accept the authority of Rome. There are also a few other churches (including the Anglican Church), the result of western missionary labours since 1820. The north of the country is the traditional Christian heartland; the Christian presence in the far south of Iraq is miniscule. More than half of all Christians are found in Baghdad and the region immediately to the south of the city (400,000). Historically they moved there from the traditional Assyrian areas of the north where until recently they remained in significant numbers (300,000), especially in and around Mosul, Dohuk, Karakush, and Erbil – all now in the path of, or actually taken by, the hard-line Islamists of ISIS.
Until the first Gulf War and more recent times, the situation of the Assyrian Christians was relatively favourable, compared with the plight of the Church elsewhere in the Middle East. However, there was a noticeable increase of tension and violence after 1991, as retaliation by the Saddam regime and its supporters against the “Christian” West. With the second Gulf War and the fall of the Saddam regime, the chaos into which Iraq fell proved extremely detrimental to the position of Christians there. They were identified (unfortunately) with the “Christian” occupiers. It didn’t help that so many of the Christians were concentrated within Baghdad and the so-called “Sunni Triangle” which was the heart of the anti-Western resistance during the Iraq intervention by the US and her allies. The Sunnis – who, up to then, had got on reasonably well with the Iraqi Christian community – have now been radicalised against the West, and ISIS has particularly targeted Christians.
Church bombings are almost commonplace. St. George’s, the only Anglican congregation in Iraq, has been damaged by bombs five times in the last three years, despite being protected by blast walls and guarded by 35 soldiers. The entire lay leadership of the congregation was abducted and murdered in September 2005. To try to avoid that recurring, most of the congregation is now gathered up every week in a guarded bus. One Sunday, worshippers narrowly missed complete annihilation by a suicide bomber, who was captured by security guards before he could detonate his explosives.
Despite the threat, the witness of St. George’s continues, not just in Baghdad, but throughout Iraq, and especially during this new crisis prompted by the mass extermination of Christians and other minorities by ISIS. Several hundred worshippers attend St. George’s every week, and their Sunday School is lively and full. The ministry is directed by two remarkable priests, the vicar, Canon Andrew White, and his curate, Fr. Faiz Jerjees. Canon White suffers from MS, and there are parts of the service that he must conduct sitting down, but that is probably the least of his worries – both priests are constantly in danger. Their work is supported by the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, started by Canon White himself. The foundation is a small UK-based charity that helps St. George’s to continue to provide a spiritual home, medical care, and humanitarian relief, as well as promoting peace among the various religious groups in Iraq.
Here at St. Salvador’s, in the comparative comfort and security of one of Scotland’s most challenging neighbourhoods, our particular gift to the wider church is a catholic perspective. This offering that we make to Anglicanism helps to preserve it from being focussed primarily on a private and local Christian faith – the sort of stuff we fight over among ourselves when we forget we are catholics. We preach and teach that the Church is united mystically to Christ as His Body. We believe in a fellowship that is seen and unseen, visible and invisible. Death has been overcome, and cannot separate the living from the dead. The fellowship between saints and sinners cannot be broken either because sin too has been overcome. The redemptive work of Christ makes us all part of each other. When one suffers, all suffer. As catholics in the Anglican tradition, we cannot emphasize this often and strongly enough.
In Northern Iraq, our Christian brothers and sisters are being marked out for extermination by the Arabic letter “N” scrawled on the walls and doors of their homes and businesses. It stands for followers of the Nazarene, by which their persecutors mean Jesus. The Church in Iraq is one with us through Jesus. As they suffer for Him, may we not at least show them that they have not been abandoned, but are one with us in Him?