Introduction: Political turmoil in Iraq displaces ancient Christian culture

  • St. George Celebration in Bede Reş, Kurdistan. Photo by Sandrine Alexie

Though the Iraqi population is overwhelmingly Muslim, Christianity's roots there long precede the foundation of Islam. Christianity, though a minority religion today, has been deeply inculturated in the region with its own indigenous forms of practice for nearly two millennia. 

More than 82% of Iraqi Catholics belong to the Chaldean rite, about 17% belong to the Syriac rite, and the remainder are primarily Armenian, Greek and Latin-rite Catholics.1

While Iraqi Christians have faced many serious setbacks in Iraq in the past, in the course of the 20th century, Catholic educational institutions had put Christians in a relatively good social position in Iraq. In 2003, there were five Christian newspapers, and eight Christian parties.2 According to Suha Rassam:

Before the second Gulf War, Christians made about 4-5% of the population, at roughly one million individuals. Of these, 70% are Chaldeans, the rest being Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, as well as small numbers of Armenians, Protestants, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics, Copts, Latins, and Anglicans. The majority lived in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Basrah and the rest in the towns and villages of the plain of Mosul and Kurdistan. Since 2003, a significantly high number of these Christians have been displaced, and about half have left the country.3

In the post-Saddam era, there was discussion of creating an autonomous Christian region, such as the Kurds have.4 Rassam suggests that the majority of Iraqi Christians are not segregationist, do not belong to the distinctively Christian political parties, and reject the notion of a Christian enclave or “ghetto” in Iraq.5 Many of them prefer to live in Baghdad, for business and educational reasons, but also see the whole of Iraq as their home. In any case, much of that region has been overtaken as of this writing by Islamist extremists who are ousting Christians.

Much of what there is to write now about Iraq concerns the political and social unrest. In the future, we hope to be able to add more about Iraqi culture, particularly as it affects Catholic practice and is reshaped by the political turmoil.

Read more on the Chaldean Catholic Church.

  • 1. The Annuario Pontificio’s statistics on the dioceses of the Eastern Churches have been compiled by Ronald G. Roberson, CSP for various years from 1990–2013 and are available at
  • 2. Archbishop Louis Sako, The Chaldean Catholic Church: A Story of Being, (Kirkuk, Iraq, 2009), 20-21.
  • 3. Suha Rassam, “Iraqi Christians: The Present Situation,” in The Catholic Church in the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Anthony O’Mahony and John Flannery (London: Melisande, 2010), 187-88.
  • 4. Herman Teule, "The Christian Minorities in Iraq: The Question of Religious and Ethnic Identity," in In-Between Spaces: Christian and Muslim Minorities in Transition in Europe and the Middle East, edited by Christiane Timmerman et. al. (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009), 50-56.
  • 5. Rassam, “Iraqi Christians: The Present Situation,” 199-202.
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