The Historical Development of Christianity in Iraq



Assyria named after its old capital Assur (or Ashur) was a major empire of the Middle/Near East from c. 2600 BC to 605 BC which spanned the early Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age. Centered on the Upper Tigris river in Northern Mesopotamia (modern northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey), the Assyrians ruled powerful empires at several times. Being part of the Mesopotamian civilization which included Sumer, Akkad, and later Babylonia, Assyria was at its peak when its empire stretched from Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea to Persia (Iran), and from what is now Armenia to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt.


From the above little introduction, the Old Testament story of Abraham called by God from Ur in Babylonia (c. 1900 BC) is supported by recent anthropological findings. Abraham is promised to have a son in his old age and is told to settle in the land of Canaan for his progeny. Babylonia is from here entangled in the sacred history: Abraham’s offspring will go to Egypt for food where they will be enslaved (c. 1700 – 1250 BC) and liberated through Moses – the same land of the Egyptians under Greek culture to which Jesus Christ had to escape from the tyrant king Herod the Great c. 2 BC. Following a united Israelite kingdom by David (c. 1000 BC) the Israelite people divided themselves into two kingdoms; a pattern which will recur in early Christian communities of the East. Around 580 BC, Babylonia is again a focal point in sacred history.  The Jews are then taken into exile in Babylonia after the fall of their capital city Jerusalem. With Persian rule from c. 539 BC Cyrus allows the Jews to return and build the second Temple. In history God works in different cultures and civilizations to bring them closer to the fulfillment of salvation in Christ.


Map of cities in the late ancient empires in the lands that contain and surround Iraq

The dire situation of Christians in Iraq is not something that happened overnight. It took many centuries of persecution and displacement by force as the price of division among Christians themselves.


Apostolic Roots

The Christian movement grew out of Jerusalem  after the Ascension of Christ and the reception of the Holy Spirit by the Apostles and their companions at Pentecost. The first task the Apostles undertook was to preach the good news of Christ to their fellow Jews in the Temple and in other cities in Judea.


In the first, second and third centuries AD Christians became involved in a life-and-death struggle with the Roman empire’s pagan culture. They were required to sacrifice to the pagan idols and if they refused they often had to be thrown to hungry lions for the crowds to enjoy them being eaten alive in the Coliseum theaters. Ignatius, martyr and the third Bishop of Antioch, experienced this end around 107 AD under order by Trajan, the Roman emperor (98-117 AD), because he was Christian …Nero had crucified Christians accusing them of burning Rome in 64 AD. He is remembered in Apocalypse (attributed to John the Apostle) as the “Beast” who will come back and his mark is 666, a transliteration of Nero’s name in Greek (Revelation 13:18). According to Christopher Dawson, the main achievement of the Church was “the successful domination of the urban Roman-Hellenistic culture.” In spite of intermittent persecutions, the Church, nevertheless, became the greatest creative force in the second and third centuries culture.


This is the age of Clement and Origen in the East and Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian in the West. St. Clement is the  2nd century Alexandrian theologian whose work influenced generations of Christian students and Origen wrote – too in Alexandria – some great commentaries on Bible interpretation. His work has been recovered in the


20th century by Henri de Lubac, S.J. Tertullian was a 2nd century Christian apologist from Carthage who was the first to  coin the word “Trinity” for Latin Christians. St. Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in the 3rd century.  On theologians of the 2nd and third centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that they could take the Apocalypse of John as their model and repudiate pagan thought just as they repudiated the imperial cult; or they could seek out, within classicism, analogies to the continuity-discontinuity which all of them found in Judaism. According to him, the most comprehensive of apologetic treatises was “Against Celsus” by Origen (Cf.  Pelikan: “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 – The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition” P. 27). From a sociological perspective Christianity proved to be not a mere sectarian cult but a real society with a high sense of citizenship.


Thomas and Thaddaeus sent to India

It is claimed in some circles that the ancient Church in the East expanded through the Apostles Thomas and Thaddaeus as far as India. The Assyrian Church of the East, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India, and the Chaldean Catholic Church claim historical presence in the lands by the lineage of their patriarchs, but especially that the Eucharistic prayer in the Divine liturgy of Addai (Thaddaeus) and Mari dates back to 3rd-century Edessa near Cappadocia (See map).


Large-scale Divisions

Yet, Christian leaders failed to maintain unity.  Faced in Persia with intermittent persecution in the first centuries of the Christian Era, Persian Christians formally proclaimed their independence from other Christian Churches in 424 AD. Barsumas, metropolitan of Nisibis accepted the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia in 486 AD. This departure from the Catholic faith was reaffirmed by Patriarch Babai (497-502) (Cf. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Assyrians). Much of the claims by local Churches in the East were caused by rivalry. In the 5th century, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople,  misunderstood the true nature of the incarnation of the Word and insisted on following the heretical views of Theodore of Mopsuestia. He preached that in Christ there were not only two natures but also two persons: one from God (the Word) and one created like men who was born of the Virgin Mary. If this is followed, then the Virgin Mary could not be called Theotokos (Mother/bearer of God). For this extreme heretical view, Nestorius was excommunicated at the Council of Ephesus under the leadership of St. Cyril in 431 AD, who had secured the support of the Pope of Rome. Nestorius was exiled but when his supporters gathered at the theological school of Edessa, it was closed in 489 AD by the Byzantine authorities and his followers escaped to Persia, the enemies of  Byzantine Christians. It was an opportunity to preach Christ to pagans. The Nestorians went as far as India. But their numbers dwindled over time.


In modern times Nestorius followers have been represented by the Church of the East; the Persian Church; or in the West as the Assyrians and Nestorians alternatively.


According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, “the Persian Church’s intellectual center became the new school of Nisibis which carried on the venerable tradition of Edessa.” Furthermore “by the end of the 5th century there were seven metropolitan provinces in Persia and several bishoprics in Arabia and India.” A convert from Zoroastrianism, Mar Aba I led this Church from 540 to 552 AD and with him Abraham of Kashkar initiated  a renewal of monasticism and founded the monastery of Mount Izala by 586.


The Islamic Conquests

In the 7th century. Muslim invaders from Arabia conquered Assyria and ruled it, but for a few centuries Assyrian Christians, including scholars and doctors, played a significant role in Iraq.  By the 8th century Muslims were already divided and each sect attacked the other to regain power of the Islamic Caliphate. Christians who were rich enough to pay  the Gezya tax as Dhimmis survived.   By the end of the 10h century 15 metropolitan provinces existed and 5 more in China and India. In central Asia, some of the Tatars were converted and facilitated the reach of Christian presence into eastern Siberia


The Abbasid Caliphate centered its government in Kufa, but in 762 AD the Caliph Al-Mansour founded, and moved his capital to, the city of Baghdad close to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Baghdad became a center of learning in science and philosophy that included a large library. The growing dominance of Islam expanded throughout the Middle East and threatened the Christian dominance in Europe when Muslims invaded Spain. To reduce tensions with the Islamic Caliphate and secure trade with the East, the Catholic Frankish Pepin entered into negotiations with the Abbasid Caliph in 762 AD. In 800, as the Roman Emperor Charlemagne was crowned, ambassadors from the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid arrived in Rome and delivered the keys of the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem to the new Emperor (Einhard, “Annales”, ad an. 800 in “Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script.”, I, 187).


More Massacres

In 1258, Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols under Hulago Khan. The Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan in Central Asia, spread over most of Eurasia, Russia, China, and the Middle East. In their conquests, large-scale slaughters of local populations took place. Many Christians in Iraq and Syria were massacred, but their remnants managed to survive. Northern Iraq remained predominantly Assyrian Christians who maintained the Aramaic language in their liturgy. By the 14th century, the Assyrian Church of the East existed in the so-called Assuristan (Sassanid), and twelve Nestorian dioceses extended from Peking (Beijing) to Samarkand. However near the end of the 14th century, the Muslim Mongol warlord Tamerlane (Timur) conquered Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. Timur had 70,000 Assyrian Christians beheaded in Tikrit and another 90,000 in Baghdad. Following the massacres of Tamerlane, the episcopal see of Ancient Assyria was moved to Alqosh in the Mosul region and Patriarch Mar Shimun IV Basidi (1437-1493) made the office of the patriarch hereditary. In spite of their massive extermination by Tamerlane, Nestorian communities lingered on in a few towns in Iraq but had more presence in Kurdistan, partly in Turkey and partly in Iran.


Reunion with Rome?

In 1551, a group of Assyrian bishops from the northern regions of Amid and Salmas challenged the hereditary claim of the office of the patriarch and elected Mar Yohanan Suluqa as a rival patriarch. Suluqa was received by the Pope in Rome who in 1553 consecrated him Mar Shimun VIII, Patriarch of the Chaldeans while other Assyrians transferred their allegiance to the Syrian Jacobites of Antioch (1653).  The Encyclopaedia Britannica adds “In 1898, in Urmia, Iran, a group of Nestorians headed by a bishop were received in communion of the Russian Orthodox Church.”


The link with the Roman Church proved providential as missionaries increased and churches were opened. In the 20th century, the Catholic Church opened a dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East. In 1994 Saint Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East signed a common Christological Declaration in which both recognize the legitimate different expressions of Christian dogma on the incarnation of the Word of God and recognize the attribution of Theotokos (Mother of God) to the mother of Jesus. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, most Assyrians number about 170,000 and live in Iraq, Syria, and Iran.


References Used:

Nestorian.Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 25, 2015, from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD .

Jenner, H. (1912). East Syrian Rite. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 1, 2015 from New Advent:

Assyria. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 3, 2015, from Wikipedia

Chronology of the Bible. The New Catholic Study Bible, 1985