CHRISTIANITY IN IRAQ
by Suha Rassam
(Freedom Publishing, 2010, 238pp, $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-85244-738-3. Available from Freedom Publishing)
In the last few years, I have met a handful of Christians who had fled Iraq for the West. Apart from a vague understanding from history textbooks that the Church was established in Mesopotamia in the early centuries of Christianity and at some stage elements had re-united with Rome, like most Australian Christians, I had little knowledge of the history and situation of Christians in Iraq until news reports of violent actions against Christ-ians in the wake of the US led invasion of 2003.
However, Christianity in Iraq demonstrates that not only is Christ-ianity in that country vibrant - having survived there against all odds - but that its origins go back to the very beginnings of the Church.
According to Iraqi Christian tradition, the Gospel was first prea-ched in the region now bordered by Iraq in the first century by the Apostle Thomas, as well as Addai (Thaddeus), Aggai and Mari.
Historical evidence indicates that Christianity was well established in Iraq by the second century and was thus one of the few places outside the Roman Empire where Christianity was well established by the time of the conversion of Constantine early in the fourth century.
The relative isolation from the rest of the Church - part of which entailed differences in language - and the fact that it was outside the empire may explain why the Christian community in Iraq came to be known pejoratively as "Nestorian". However, the author Suha Rassam argues that such a term is unhelpful and fails to recognise the theological subtlety of the Church of the East's Christology.
The other major Christian denomination in Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox Church, originated in the Byzantine Empire amongst those often known as "Jacobites" after Jacob Baradaeus who refused to accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. Both denominations were noted for their miss-ionary focus, the Church of the East for example sending missionaries to China, where Christianity flourished until it was wiped out.
Similarly, both the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church produced noted scholars and, despite their isolation, there were ex-changes between them and Western Christendom during the medieval period.
These finally bore fruit in 1553 when a section of the Church of the East was re-united with Rome. Unfortunately, it lasted for only a couple of generations and was only reestab-lished early in the 19th century.
The last forty years have also witnessed fruitful dialogues between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East and the Syrian Or-thodox Churches. Rassam argues that many of the Christological disputes of the past were based largely upon mis-understandings arising from differ-ences in language.
For its almost 2,000 years of existence, the Christian communities of Iraq have enjoyed periods of tol-erance intermingled with ones of persecution, as they lived under a variety of regimes including the Sassanid Empire, the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire. During periods of persecution, Christians tended to retreat to the north, with the city of Mosul being an important centre.
With the formation of the state of Mesopotamia in 1921, in the wake of the break-up of the Ottoman Em-pire, until the US-led invasion in 2003, Christian communities enjoyed relative peace. Much of Rassam's work is devoted to analysing this period of history.
Ironically, the regime of Saddam Husayn (the author's spell-ing) generally protected Christians, provided they did not challenge his regime. Concerns by Iraqi Christians that the invasion would destabilise the political situation unfortunately proved true, with Islamic extremists targeting Christians.
So, far from being a new era for Christianity in Iraq, the past eight years have seen many Christians flee the country with many commentators concerned that the Christian presence may disappear altogether.
Christianity in Iraq is an interesting introduction to the history of some of the world's oldest Christian communities. The author has been able to draw on her extensive knowledge of Iraqi Christian history, being an expatriate Iraqi now living in the United Kingdom. The avail-ability of this book is most welcome, particularly given the significant numbers of Iraqi Christians now resident in Western countries such as Australia.
This comprehensive introduction to Iraqi Christianity also fills a major gap in modern literature on the subject.