For most Westerners, Iraq is a foreboding and dangerous place that is filled with extremists and daily violence. Yet as little as 75 years ago, Iraq was a vibrant country that was home to many different ethnic and religious minorities, including large Jewish and Christian populations.
But the latest round of violence spearheaded by the jihadist terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is driving through the heart of Iraq to the capital of Baghdad and inflicting medieval-style Islamic justice on anyone in its path, might be the last gasp of Iraq’s ancient Christian community, which faces extinction like Iraq’s Jewish community before it.
“Iraq used to be a beautiful mosaic made of many different faiths, including Judaism,” Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, told JNS.org.
Like the Jewish people, the Christians of Iraq have a long and storied history that can be traced back to the very foundations of human civilization.
Most Iraqi Christians belong to an ethnic group known as the Assyrians. The Assyrian people consider themselves to be direct descendants of the numerous ancient Mesopotamian civilizations such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.
“The Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs are the children of Sumerians, the original people of Iraq,” Taimoorazy said.
Mentioned numerous times in the bible from Genesis and onward, the peoples of Mesopotamia were key in formation of Judeo-Christian history. It is the land where the biblical patriarch Abraham hailed from. And later on, the Assyrians played a notable role in Jewish history, as they conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and expelled the Jewish people to Mesopotamia. That led to the creation of Iraq’s Jewish community, which continued until the 20th century. Additionally, their successor state, the Babylonians, were the ones who later destroyed the First Temple in 587 BCE.
Christianity was first brought to modern-day Iraq by Jesus’s Apostle St. Thomas during the 1st century CE, making it one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Christians formed the majority of the country’s population until the 14th century. The region’s Christians have subdivided since then into a number of churches, with the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East forming the largest denominations.