Whitepaper: Challenge

Table of contents

2. Challenge

Iraq has a population of approximately 37 million people divided into several ethnic groups — the Sunni and Shi’a being the most recognized groups worldwide. Iraqi Arabs include the Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians, which can be further divided into the Feylis, Yazidis, and Shabaks. This tremendous ethnic diversity has been the source of conflict in Iraq for hundreds of years.

2.1 Emergence of Christianity in Iraq

During the 1st century, the region of Assyria became an important center of Christian worship.  However, Christians did not live peacefully in what became a predominantly Muslim country after the 8th century.  Following the 14th century rule of the Muslim warlord Tamerlane, 70,000 Assyrian Christians were beheaded in Tikrit and 90,000 were executed in Baghdad as a result of the Persian, Syrian, and Mesopotamian conquest[1].  Massacres of Christians were frequent and devastating for centuries. The Assyrian Genocide which occurred during World War I accounted for the death of approximately half of the entire Christian population[2].  The subsequent independence of Iraq from British rule in 1933 did not make life easier for the Christians.  The Iraqi military administered a large-scale massacre of the Assyrian people as retribution for supporting British Colonialization[3].

Despite extreme hardship and severe persecution, Assyrian Christians have left an indelible mark in modern history.  The Christians played a crucial role in moderating political, social, and cultural development in Iraq.  Under King Faisal of Iraq’s rule from 1921 to 1933, religious diversification was encouraged and tolerated by the various ethnic groups.  A pseudo unity grew between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Jews, and Christians. King Faisal was famous for including different ethnic and religious groups in his administration and believed that Islam badly needed ‘a modern-minded religious class’[4].  When prompted by an aide to eradicate Christians from Iraq, King Faisal replied:

“If you have a field, why would you pull up the flowers? Christians bring beauty and fragrance to Iraq. They shall remain.”

Saddam Hussein loosely adopted this mindset during his rule from 1979 to 2003. He hired Tariq Aziz, a Christian, as his top minister and Iraq’s international spokesperson for twenty years.

Ethnic tensions remained dormant until Hussein’s downfall in 2003 and political chaos ensued between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. As with any war, the poor and minorities suffered the most with no one to advocate for them.  Baghdad was at one time an amazing mixture of culture, traditions, and beliefs.  However, hopes were dimmed when Al Qaeda took 58 Christians hostage at the Lady of Salvation Church in 2010, murdering them all in one of the worst attacks against Christians since the start of the war.  The population of Iraqi Christians has fallen from over 1.4 million to a mere 300,000 since the start of the Iraq war, and their suffering continues to this day[5].

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[1] Cavendish, Richard. “Death of Tamerlane.” History Today, 2 Feb. 2005, www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/death-tamerlane.

[2] Gaunt, David. “The Assyrian Genocide of 1915.” 1900 To 1999 A.D. Assyrian History, Seyfo Center, 24 Apr. 2014, www.atour.com/history/1900/20140424a.html.

[3] “Iraqi Christians’ Long History.” BBC News, BBC, 1 Nov. 2010, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-11669994.

[4] Rush, Alan. “The Enlightened King of Iraq.” The Spectator, 15 Feb. 2014, www.spectator.co.uk/2014/02/faisal-of-iraq-by-ali-a-allawi-review/.

[5] “Assyria.” Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization (UNPO), UNPO, 2010, unpo.org/members/7859.