Like many ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, Christians are trying to find new ways to peacefully coexist in their country. Yet, as the political and economic situations continue to decline, many have had to emigrate to find peace.
Iraq has a population of approximately 38 million people, the vast majority of whom (95%) are Muslim—Sunni or Shi’a. The country’s ethnic population is largely made up of Arabs and Kurds. Yet, Iraq is home to many other ethnic and religious minorities, including Shabak, Yazidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Iraqi Caucasus tribes, Afro-Iraqis, Jews, and Christians of various denominations. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, security in the country has deteriorated significantly, especially for its many minorities.
In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded the northern city of Mosul, and captured many towns in the Nineveh Plain, which lies between the Kurdish north and the Arab south. This region used to be home to Iraq’s Christian population, who are believed to be descendants of the world’s first Christians. As ISIS spread across northern Iraq in 2014, it targeted thousands of Christians, forcing them from their homes to Kurdish-controlled areas.
Unlike other minorities, however, Iraqi Christians have not always been persecuted. As recently as Saddam Hussein’s rule, the political situation was very different for Iraq’s Christian minority.
Unlike other minorities, however, Iraqi Christians have not always been persecuted. As recently as Saddam Hussein’s rule, the political situation was very different for Iraq’s Christian minority. Although the dictator carried out various crackdowns on other religious minorities, his regime seemed to be tolerant of the country’s Christians. In fact, Tariq Aziz, an important adviser in Hussein’s inner circle, was a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Sadly, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent rise and fall of ISIS shattered the fragile peace between Christians and Muslims.
Christianity’s Vanishing Trace in the MENA Region
An increasing number of Christians, including Egyptian Copts, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East and North Africa, are choosing to leave the Arab world. Before 2003, an estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. When ISIS expanded its caliphate in Iraq in 2014, its chilling ultimatum to Iraqi Christians (convert to Islam and pay taxes, or die) caused many to flee their homes—and the country. Today, the number of Christians has dropped by 83 percent, with fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining.
Some Christian Iraqis believe that ISIS is “an extreme expression of hostility that predated the terror group’s rise” and will continue to exist even after the group’s defeat. Indeed, the country’s constitution enshrines the discrimination that Iraqi Christians struggle with on a daily basis. Drafted in 2005, it declares Islam as the country’s official religion and forbids any law that “contradicts the established provisions of Islam.”
For example, Iraqi Christian men cannot marry Muslim women. Moreover, children of mixed parentage are automatically considered to be Muslim if one of their parents is Muslim—even if they are born of rape. Christians also struggle to find job opportunities, as many non-Christians will not hire them. Even though Iraqi Christians seem to have few allies in their own country, they have one powerful and influential ally abroad: Washington.
Since Donald Trump took office in 2016, his administration has made supporting Christians in the Middle East a more explicit part of American foreign policy, even more so than the past two administrations. The residents of the Nineveh Plain have received significant investment from the U.S. government. This is largely due to the fact that conservative Christians (who played a crucial role in Trump’s election) have a powerful lobby in Washington D.C. that strives to protect the interests of Christians worldwide.
Trump Administration Support for Iraqi Christendom
Up until 18 months ago, various foreign governments sent money for stabilization efforts in the Nineveh Plain through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). However, many Iraqi religious leaders complained about the international organization, claiming it was ineffective and misused funds. Members of the Nineveh Plain churches argued that the money would be used more effectively if they received it directly. Shortly after, Christian advocates in Washington made the case, and the Trump administration came on board.
In October 2017, Vice President Mike Pence instructed USAID—the agency that finances development projects around the world—to create a special funding process that would not rely as heavily on the UN. Then, last October, USAID announced yet another $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance to support vulnerable communities in Iraq—bringing Washington’s investment in the region to nearly $300 million since the 2017 fiscal year. Despite the aid, thousands of Iraqi Christians continue to leave the precarious political and economic conditions in their home country.
While the Trump administration has shown a readiness to provide financial support to Christians in Iraq, it has been less willing to receive Iraqi Christian refugees.
While the Trump administration has shown a readiness to provide financial support to Christians in Iraq, it has been less willing to receive Iraqi Christian refugees. Only 23 Iraqi Christians were admitted to the U.S. in 2018, compared with the approximate 2,000 that were admitted in 2016, according to data from the U.S. State Department and the World Relief charity. This 98 percent drop has forced many Iraqi minorities to seek refuge elsewhere, mainly Europe and Australia.
Officials in Trump’s administration have argued that the Nineveh Plain’s shrinking Christian minority could further undermine its position in the country. If the population of Iraqi Christians continues to dwindle, the minority is less likely to be represented in Iraq. It is also likely to become less of a policy priority for officials in Baghdad.
Washington claims that the preservation of Iraq’s historical pluralism “is critical to reintegrating persecuted ethnic and religious minority communities into a peaceful Iraq.” But, even if Christian towns in Iraq become safe again, most Iraqi Christians are unwilling or unable to return to them. They have nothing to go home to: they have neither trust nor confidence in the Iraqi government or their neighbors to protect them.
If a country’s treatment of its most vulnerable is a test of its democratic potential, then the Iraqi government is undoubtedly failing its people. However, even in the midst of fear and persecution, many in the remaining Iraq’s Christian population refuse to lose faith.
“It’s a challenging question to keep the church alive here, [but] we can. We will never, never give up. We might be helpless, but we are never hopeless,” Father Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East told PBS NewsHour. As long as that hope stays alive, the history of Christianity in Iraq will not be lost.