Another Somber Easter in Iraq
Where Iraqi Christians stand two decades after the U.S. invasion—and why America has a duty to help
Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq boasted the second-largest Christian community in the Middle East. But the chaos that ensued left Iraqi Christians vulnerable to discrimination, extortion, and terrorist attacks. Tens of thousands fled. While the Iraqi church isn't dead, the Iraqi Christian community is on life support—and with Easter approaching, an uncertain future lies ahead for both.
Christianity in Iraq dates back to the beginnings of the faith. Biblical characters like Abraham, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jonah, Nahum, and others all called Iraq home. Not for nothing has the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates been called the "Cradle of Christianity."
Prior to the 2003 invasion, State Department estimates put the Iraqi Christian population at around 1 million—a decline from the 1.4 million Christians recorded by Iraq’s 1987 census. While Egypt's Coptic church remains the largest Christian community in the Middle East, numbering in the millions, Iraq’s Christian community was large and diverse, with denominations ranging from the Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic to the Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Catholic, and other historic churches. Other minority faiths were interwoven into Iraq’s wider religious tapestry, including Yezidis, Shabak, Sabean Mandeans, Kakai, Baha’is, and the small remnant of a once-large and vibrant Iraqi Jewish community.
After the invasion and two decades of violence and turmoil, however, the Iraqi church is now a shadow of its former self—and America must consider what responsibility it bears for this state of affairs.
Religious freedom was never fully protected in the country. The U.S. State Department repeatedly designated Iraq a "country of particular concern" for severe persecution from 1999 until Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003. But as is often unfortunately true with dictatorships, religious minorities found stability thanks to the regime's iron-fisted brutality repressing anyone and everyone.
The 2003 invasion shattered this atmosphere of blanket repression and replaced it with chaos, unleashing forces—ethnic and sectarian violence among them—that even the U.S. military could not fully contain. As the State Department acknowledged in its 2005 International Religious Freedom Report, "While the general lawlessness that permitted criminal gangs and insurgents to victimize citizens with impunity affected Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions, many individuals were targeted because of their religious identity or secular leanings."
Indeed, it was religious minorities who proved most helpless in the bloodletting that followed. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent and bipartisan U.S. government body that reports on religious freedom issues, "Between 2004 and 2006, some 27 Chaldo-Assyrian churches were attacked or bombed in Baghdad and the Kurdish areas, often in simultaneous operations." In January 2006, for instance, five coordinated bombings targeted two churches in Baghdad, two in Kirkuk, and the Vatican embassy. Iraqi Christians did not having large militias or political support, making them easy targets for shakedowns, kidnapping, and murder—or worse.
When the United States returned full sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, American advisers hoped a constitutional drafting process would help achieve a political settlement. While the new constitution reserved seats for some religious minorities and women, it ultimately proved a step backward for religious freedom. It contains a “repugnancy clause” empowering government officials or others to claim their interpretation of Islam trumps international human rights standards. In addition, Iraqi citizenship rights are tied to faith, and the constitution only recognizes three non-Muslim religious communities. In 2005, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom provided legal analysis and suggestions for the new constitution, almost all of them ignored. In other words, the American-shepherded constitutional drafting process resulted in fewer religious freedoms for Iraqis, not more.
In the years that followed, Christians and religious minorities in Iraq have been sidelined and rendered politically powerless, with their reserved seats dominated by larger Shia and Sunni blocs. Tens of thousands of Christians voted with their feet, fleeing for an uncertain future in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey. The push of discrimination, instability, and terrorism, combined with the pull of family members beckoning from the safety of the other nations, motivated thousands to leave. Making matters even worse, the ISIS juggernaut tore through traditional Christian lands in the Ninewa Plains and triggered another surge of migration in 2014. With this two-decade exodus still under way, 250,000 Christians or less remain in Iraq to celebrate Easter this year.
The United States bears great responsibility for what transpired in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Untold numbers of Iraqis have suffered from instability and violence over the past two decades. But we must also recognize the demise of the Iraqi church can be attributed to our decision to invade. We bear at least some responsibility for what happened to this ancient bastion of Christianity.
From my own many visits to the country, it’s clear that no easy answers exist either for Iraq as a whole or Iraqi Christians in particular. It’s crucial the United States and international community continue to fund restoration projects, especially in predominantly minority areas, and provide political support to Iraqi minority groups. We must also allow those fearing persecution and facing harm on account of their beliefs to flee and resettle abroad. We cannot walk away from Iraqi Christians or the country’s other besieged religious minorities like the Yezidis.
As Easter 2023 approaches, this grim picture has glimpses of light. Pope Francis' visit in March 2021 was a good news story, encouraging his dwindling flock, while the Kurdish region in Iraq’s north has provided a safe haven for Iraqi Christians. The Chaldean Catholic Church has worked tirelessly to reestablish Christian life, thanks in significant part to Archbishop Warda of Erbil. In addition, the ancient Assyrian Church of the East moved its seat from Chicago back to northern Iraq in 2015 to signal its commitment and is now led by its first American patriarch, Mar Awa III. Small Iraqi Protestant congregations have also emerged over the past twenty years and are growing.
Christian life has also returned to some areas of the country thanks to Iraqi efforts, bolstered by American and international assistance. Even in Mosul, ruled for three bloody and brutal years by ISIS, church bells are ringing again thanks to UN efforts and the support of the United Arab Emirates. Easter will be celebrated anew in these refurbished churches. More broadly, many young Iraqis of every ethnic and religious background hope to build a genuinely inclusive nationalism that can overcome the sectarian politics of the past two decades, politics that have so failed the country’s Christians and other religious minorities.
On this twentieth Easter since the invasion, Iraq's Christian faithful can resurrect their community—and the United States has its own duty to help bring this miracle about.
A 20-year civil servant, Knox Thames served in the Obama and Trump administrations in a special envoy role focused on religious minorities in the Middle East and South Asia. He is now a Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University. Follow him on Twitter: @KnoxThames.