New book tells story of Christians in Iraq

 From the media coverage in Britain of the chaos and violence in Iraq you would not know that the country has an estimated 800,000 Christians, most Catholic. In a timely and much needed book, Suha Rassam describes the arrival, development and present state of Christianity in her homeland.

A former assistant professor of medicine at the University of Baghdad, Rassam now lives in Surrey. A Chaldean Catholic, she grew up in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq famed for its monasteries. She attended a primary school run by Dominican nuns and, later, stayed with the Presentation Sisters while studying medicine in Baghdad.

Rassam makes the point that Christianity took root in Iraq before it did so in Britain. Its precise origins are unclear, but the Acts of the Apostles records that there were people from Mesopotamia (Iraq's former name) present in Jerusalem at Pentecost.

Iraq's Biblical history, of course, goes all the way back to Abraham, who journeyed from Ur in the north to Canaan. In fact, the Garden of Eden, which Genesis describes as between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is said by some to be in Iraq. On my first visit to Iraq a man told me confidently he knew the exact spot.

By the time Islam swept across ancient Mesopotamia in the seventh century, the Church was firmly established. It had produced martyrs under Persian persecution, held synods and engaged in missionary activity as far afield as China and Afghanistan.

"Wherever they went they took books with them and established schools, hospitals and monasteries," Rassam writes.

Rassam gently guides the readers through what can appear at first a baffling lexicon of Christianity: Assyrian, Nestorian, Jacobite, East Syrian. The series of tables and the glossary are a great help here. However, the publishers could have surely provided better maps.

Christians didn't have an easy time under Ottoman rule, which divided Iraq into four provinces. She says, "The long Ottoman rule and its treatment of the Christians as second- class citizens left a deep scar in the collective consciousness."

In Iraq today, she says, Christians fall into seven groups: Catholic, The Church of the East, and Oriental Orthodox, the largest, followed by small Protestant, Copt, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican communities.

The Catholic Church accounts for 75% of Christians and consists of Chaldeans, Syrians, Armenians, Latins and Greeks. The Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Deli has 18 bishops and a flock of around half a million. Religious orders present include Redemptorists, Missionaries of Charity, Franciscans and several founded in Iraq.

Rassam is deeply worried by what is happening to the Christian community under the present occupation. Since the US-led invasion of March 2003, Christians have, increasingly, become the targets of Islamic fundamentalists. Murders, kidnappings, bombings of churches and attacks on property have forced many to flee across the border to neighbouring Jordan and Syria.

Muslim leaders, including leading Shia clerics Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, have spoken out against attacks on Christians. In January 2004 200 mainly Muslim intellectuals and political leaders called for an end to attacks on Christians and for an end to forcing women to weir the veil.

Interestingly, Rassam maintains that Evangelical American Christians who arrived with US troops are, partly, responsible for anti-Christian sentiments. She argues that their presence has resulted in all Christians being labelled "crusaders" by some Islamic fundamentalists.

The optimism of the Chaldean Catholic bishops after the toppling of Saddam has rapidly faded. After the long Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the crippling UN sanctions, the prospect of a new, democratic Iraq offered the Church an opportunity to play a major role in shaping a new society.

Yet, despite the lurch towards civil war, hope remains. Rassam notes that there are currently 50 men training for the priesthood at St Peter's
Seminary in Baghdad.

The violence, fear and chaos that now engulfs Iraq is producing courageous leaders in the Church. And none more so than the unassuming Bishop Abouna Andrawis, who spent 12 years in London as chaplain to the Chaldean community.

When he was forced to cut short a visit to London last year after the patriarch received death threats, he said, "Everybody is afraid, but right now the people need me. I must go back to encourage them. We want to tell them not to give up."

Christianity in Iraq by Suha Rassam is published by Gracewing and can be ordered from Catholic bookshops or online through Amazon on the ICN home page.

first posted LONDON - 3 November 2005 - 757 words

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