Celebrating Christmas: A call for unity among the ethnic and religious groups of Iraq

Opinion Dec 26, 2020 7 min read

Article originally written by Anouschka Agob

Christmas has always been a special month, not just for Christians but for most people. To many it represents a month in which families gather to celebrate time together, prepare and eat a special dinner, exchange presents, and look forward to the New Year in the hope that it will bring only more good to their lives. Unfortunately Corona has forced us to see less of our families and has even put a hold to celebrating Christmas with our loved ones, making the Christmas holiday this year even more special than usual.

But there is a group of people for whom celebrating Christmas is ‘special’ every year: the Christians of Iraq. While Christians have inhabited this region for almost 2000 years, there has been an exodus of Christians out of Iraq in the last two decades. Some are even claiming that Christianity in Iraq is ‘close to extinction.’1

While the word ‘extinction’ may sound as an over exaggeration to many, the reality is indeed that in the last 20 years, and especially since ISIS swept across the Mosul and Nineveh regions of Iraq in 2014, more and more Iraqi Christians have decided to leave Iraq for good.2According to the independent, non-profit Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, of the 1.5 million Christians in 2003 there are only 400.000 left today.3

But while western media have been reporting on the dwindling numbers of Iraq’s Christians, and often assigning blame to “the secretarian violence between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims of Iraq, and ISIS directly targeting christians’4,they purposely and willingly leave out the main cause of Christians fleeing Iraq.

For one must wonder why for decades Iraq’s Christians were free to worship, flourished economically as businessmen, lawyers, engineers etc. and were considered respected citizens of Iraq. In fact, Christians in Iraq often rose to high offices, most notably the foreign minister and later Deputy Prime Minister under Saddam Tariq Aziz an Assyrian-Chaldean Christian born as “Mikhail Yuhanna’.5According to western wisdom this was merely due to the social contract that existed between minority groups in Iraq and Hussein and the fear of the alternative: ‘support Saddam or lose protection and become direct targets of radical Islamic aggression and other secretarian violence’.6

But while there may be some truth to this, the obvious other reasons why Christians flourished before the 2003 US-led invasion are never mentioned: the absence of any real Islamic religious institutionalized discrimination towards Christians or towards any other religious and ethnic groups. In fact, going back one can see a history of several religious groups, Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in relative harmony in what was then still ‘Mesopotamia’. Mesopotamia and later Iraq had one of the most multicultural societies in the Middle East.7 It wasn’t until the end of WWI, when the British granted some control over Iraq to the influential Hashemite Sunni-tribe they felt could be trusted to implement their preferred policies and the re-settlement of Assyrians to Iraq who made claims to autonomy, that the first cracks appeared in the harmonious co-existence between the diverse groups. What must be made absolutely clear here is that the frustration of the other Iraqi religious and ethnic groups was not due to these groups being anti-Sunni or anti-Assyrian. Rather, the frustration was based on the view that the British were invading colonialists and thus their exercised power over Iraq was illegitimate.8

The growing Zionist sentiments that began to appear among Iraqi Jews in the 1930, the UN Palestine Partition Plan and the newly-founded Jewish state of Israel in 1947 on Palestinian land with the approval and support of the British, further infuriated many Iraqi’s. Again, what must be mentioned is that the reason for this anger was not based on Islamic sentiments of anti-Semitism. It was based on the fact that many in Iraq felt that not only had the British betrayed their promise for Iraqi independence after WWII ended, but also that the Iraqi Jews were not loyal to Iraq and its cause for Iraqi independence, rather focused to their own quest for an independent Israeli state.9 The Kurdish claim to independence also dealt a blow to the harmonious co-existence between the diverse religious and ethnic groups within Iraq. The Kurdish elite’s desire for their own nation-state often led to conflict with the Iraqi political elite in Baghdad which unfortunately lasts till this very day. Here too the main reason for the negative and suspicious attitude towards the Kurdish elite was not because of some inbred Islamic anti-Kurdish sentiment. Rather, the Kurdish elite were viewed with suspicion for being susceptible to American promises of support for an independent Kurdish state in return for their alliance.10Finally, the US and UN-sanctions of the 1990s, leading to poverty and economic hardship, and then the 2003-led illegal and morally unjust invasion by the US, was viewed by some Iraqi religious minorities as ‘a modern crusade by Christians Zionists’. This led towards huge suspicion of the Christian community in Iraq and the result was discrimination and marginalization.

Thus, while it is true that starting from the end of WWI the once peaceful co-existence between the different Iraqi religious and ethnic groups was disturbed, it is imperative that this is put into the perspective of political and social events of the time. For when we put these events into the right political perspective, the role of first the British and later the American Zionists becomes obvious. Looking at the timeline we soon discover a similar pattern: whenever the British and/or American Zionists meddled and pushed their own preferred policies by supporting one of Iraq’s ethnic or religious groups, as a means to fulfil their own interests, tensions between ethnic and religious groups within Iraq arose and/or intensified.11 The last 100 years show how every Iraqi religious and ethnic group at different times became a play ball for the British and Americans. Thus, we cannot but conclude that starting from the end of WWI the lack of social cohesion and presence of animosity between the different ethnic and religious groups of Iraq was stirred up and/or stimulated and used by the British and Americans merely to suit their own interests. This reason is what truly lies behind the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq in the last few decades.

*picture courtesy of Carl Palomino Law

However, while much can be said about the moral responsibility of the British and Americans for the present situation and the dwindling number of Christians in Iraq, Iraqi’s of all religions and ethnic groups bear a huge responsibility too. After all, the old adage “divide and conquer” applies very much here: Iraqi’s allow(ed) themselves to be indoctrinated by British/American propaganda, which was obviously designed to set up ethnic and religious groups against each other in order to weaken Iraq and conquer it. Which is exactly what happened in 2003. The loud-mouthed ugly Yankee likes to tell the world that “the US conquered Iraq in less than 5 weeks”. The truth however is that the onlyreason why the US was able to depose Saddam so quickly is because Iraq by 2003 had become a dividednation held only together by the iron will of Saddam. In fact, as soon as Americans had crossed Iraq some groups tried to find favour by working together with the US-forces offering their services. This exacerbated feelings of betrayal and suspicion of the different ethnic and religious groups against each other. Now others religious or ethnic groups, that had always felt discriminated against by Saddam and his inner circle, now took power and started to discriminate against other Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities themselves. The result was even more resentment and years of sectarian violence.

Therefore, I want to end by making an appeal to all Iraqi’s: it is time for the ‘Great Reset” in which Iraqi’s stop fighting and killing each other. It is time for all Iraqi’s to start seeing each other as ‘fellow-citizens of Iraq’ so that we can start working togetherinstead of working with outsiders againsteach other. Time to work together for a better future in which allstakeholders in Iraq play a role. A role that is not based on a stakeholders religious or ethnic affiliation, which in the past and present has informed their political understanding of how to run Iraq. Even though we must cherish the rich ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq. Rather, this role should be based on the stakeholders participation in a society with a shared national identitythat finds its roots in democratic principles, and which fosters cohesion between all the different religious and ethnic groups. Only then can an Iraqi nation-state, that functions effectively and efficiently, exist.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of IraqNow.


* Picture courtesy of IStock.
1. Frank Gardener, Iraq's Christians 'close to extinction', (BBC, 23th May 2019). https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48333923. Retrieved 16th December 2020.
2. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20201122-nightmare-over-but-iraqi-christians-still-dream-of-leaving
3. http://www.hhro.org/en
4. For example https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2010/1109/How-an-Iraqi-Christian-school-became-82-percent-Muslim , https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20201122-nightmare-over-but-iraqi-christians-still-dream-of-leaving
5. The Chaldean News, Free Tariq Aziz, (June 2008). Retrieved fromhttps://web.archive.org/web/20150211052928/http://www.chaldeannews.com/free-tariq-aziz/ 16thDecember 2020  &
-Minority Rights, Chaldeans, (November 2017) Retrieved from https://minorityrights.org/minorities/chaldeans/ 16th December 2020.
6. There is a similar pattern concerning other Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Syria.https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/mid-easts-christians-intro
7. Shams C. Inati, Iraq: Its History, People, and Politics, (Humanity Books, 2003). 8.  Sara Pursely, Violence in Iraq: Some Methodological and Historiographical Questions’ (POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq)- Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Phebe Marr,  A Modern History of Iraq, (Hachette UK, 2017).
9. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, Jews in Iraq and Zionism.(In M. A. Ehrlich (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora ,Vol. 2, pp. 771-  776)
10. Hala Mundhir Fattah, Frank Caso, A Brief History of Iraq,(Infobase Publishing, 2009).
11. This pattern can be found inother Middle-eastern states too, and betweenMiddle-Eastern states.

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