An Iraqi “Catch 22”

by Michael J.L. La Civita
photos by Dwight Cendrowski

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Iraqi Christians are caught in a “Catch 22.” As a drop in a Muslim sea, Christians, according to Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid, have begun to feel the development among their countrymen of a “religious psychosis.” The Chaldean Catholic patriarch from Baghdad associates this psychosis as an attempt to identify “Christians with Westerners.” Meanwhile since Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait, Iraqi Christians in the West have periodically experienced anti-Arab discrimination. But while Iraqi Christians are not Western, neither are they Arab.

In the past Iraqi Christians indeed identified with the West. However, they have learned from the past’s broken promises. Just 75 years ago, Britain intimated that if these Christians joined the Allied effort against the Ottoman Empire, they would provide an autonomous Christian homeland. After World War I, Britian set up the Kingdom of Iraq, uniting diverse ethnic and religious groups that were previously separated by the Ottomans. Christians, however, suffered the consequences of their affiliations with the West.

“We identify ourselves as Iraqis,” said Mar Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, Bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese in the United States, “but not as Arabs.”

Iraqi Christians are the heirs of the Assyrian and Chaldean (Babylonian) civilizations, which once ruled the Tigres and Euphrates river basin. The Assyrians were predominant in the north, Chaldeans in the South. Presently, most Iraqi Christians have moved to the cities, particularly Baghdad.

“We Assyrians and Chaldeans are of the same blood,” asserted Mar Ibrahim, “the same people.”

But for Iraqi Christians, this patrimony does not guarantee unity – even when threatened with potential prejudice and hostility by the Arab Muslim majority. Religious and political schisms have separated this once-powerful people and its remnants into a confusing number of churches and patriarchs.

Even among Iraqi Christians, the name “Chaldean” is disputed. Those who acknowledge the authority of the pope – approximately 75 percent of the Christian population – call themselves Chaldean. The rest style themselves surayi, meaning Assyrian or Syrian.

The 20th century has been particularly difficult for the Christians of Iraq. The horrors of World War I forced scores to flee their homeland. Between 1915 and 1918, more than 50,000 Christians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks. Herded into refugee camps, thousands died in the cholera epidemic of 1918.

The Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian) suffered the heaviest losses. It is estimated that half of its congregation – including the catholicos, numerous bishops, priests, men, women and children – were murdered or died of disease.

Today there are nearly 150,000 Iraqi Christians in the United States. Most of them settled along denominational lines: Chaldean Catholics in California and Michigan; Nestorians in California and Illinois; and Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics in New Jersey and New York.

The Chaldean Catholic community in Detroit, Mich., is one of the more substantial expatriate communities. More than 35,000 Chaldeans have settled in the metropolitan area.

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Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Chaldean Church Emigration Assyrian Church