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Iraqi Christians take pride in their ancestry, counting Abraham of Ur of the land of the Chaldeans as one of their own. But their lineage has done little to protect them from Muslim insurgents since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003; extremists see Iraqi Christians as collaborators with the “Christian West.”

While some form of order has been restored in a country destroyed by seven years of strife, the dust has yet to settle for the country’s Christians. Once estimated at one million strong — and occupying positions of influence and wealth — Iraqi Christians are now scattered around the globe. No reliable statistics exist, but most experts believe less than 300,000 Christians remain. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring Jordan and Syria, where they wait for visas to settle in the West or pray for a more stable homeland. Smaller numbers have found some comfort in Lebanon and Turkey. Those unable or unwilling to leave Iraq have fled to the Kurdish-controlled regions in the north, particularly near ancient Nineveh.

The origin of Christianity in Mesopotamia is shrouded in legend, but most credit the apostle Thomas with the evangelization of the region’s Jewish communities on his way to India. Contested by two empires, Persian and Roman, Christian Mesopotamia prospered, becoming home to one of the greatest theological centers in late antiquity. Eventually, this Mesopotamian church turned away from the Greco-Roman world and declared its primary bishop “catholicos-patriarch of the East,” equal to and independent of the patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. At its height, this “Assyrian” Church of the East included eparchies in India, China and Japan.

Today, more than two-thirds of Iraqi Christians are Catholics belonging to the Chaldean Church — which maintains the traditions of the Church of the East while remaining in communion with Rome — and is led by Patriarch Emmanuel III. The remaining third belong to the Armenian (Apostolic and Catholic), Assyrian and Syriac (Catholic and Orthodox) churches. Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, left the region permanently for the United States in 1976.

Demographics. For much of its history, Iraq was diverse. In 1932, Christians represented 20 percent of its total population. Yet Iraq’s instability — dictatorships, war and civil strife — has drained it of its minorities and middle classes. After Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, the Christian community declined to 10 percent. After the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Christian community declined to 5 percent.

Today, roughly 75 percent of the country’s 27 million people are Arab, 20 percent Kurdish, 3 percent Assyro-Chaldean and 2 percent Turkmen. About 97 percent of the population is Muslim, two-thirds of whom are Shiite and one-third Sunni. The rest of the population includes Christians, Mandaeans and Yazidis.

Sociopolitical situation. Though Iraq controls the third largest oil reserves in the world and possesses significant supplies of natural gas and water, its fledgling democratic government must rebuild its devastated infrastructure, bolster inadequate social services and combat widespread poverty and high unemployment.

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Tags: Iraq Middle East Christians Iraqi Christians Chaldean Church Emigration