Iraq, although an obviously Muslim country by majority, has a surprising amount of Catholic Christians, (well over 1% of the population) and I suspect many are not aware of this. Sadly, the numbers of total Christians have dropped extensively lately, due to many millions moving out of the country. While this may have something negative to say about the effect of U.S. presence in Iraq, at least in this aspect, it is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, we will briefly discuss the Catholic Christian culture of present day Iraq.
In Iraq, there are 16 Diocese, many of which have vacant positions in need of bishops. Many of these are in “union with Rome,” that is, they fall under the headship of and in doctrinal unity with the bishop of Rome. Others, however, are of the East Orthodox Church, closely related in doctrine and apostolic succession to the “western Church” but not in union with her. These Diocese are diverse in their forms of liturgy, being Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian, and Melkite Greek, among others.
As may appear obvious, the Christian faith, in many parts of the country, is not openly practiced to a great extent. Yet there are significant active churches where Mass is said regularly on Sundays. These structures are subject to laws that dominate many Arab countries and are restricted as to permitted height and other features, but they nonetheless exist and are places of worship for Christians.
There is even a Latin Rite (the most well-known of the “rites” to those in the western world) Catholic Diocese residing in Baghdad and having between 2,500 and 3,000 Latin Rite Catholics living throughout the country of Iraq. It was established as a Diocese on September 6, 1632.
Catholics in Iraq are certainly not without their share of persecutions. Although many attacks are certainly part of the ongoing Shia-Sunni struggle, a recent example of Catholic specific terrorism occurred in Kirkuk:
On August 2, 2011, an attack took place in Kirkuk’s Shatterlo neighborhood around 5:30 a.m. The wounded included staff from the Holy Family Church and people with homes nearby. Police said at least 20 people were injured in the attack, while the Interior Ministry put the number at 23. The explosion damaged the church and a number of nearby houses.
This most recent Christmas, plans were changed in the hopes of protecting Christians at worship. The Chaldean Catholic churches, for example, canceled traditional Christmas Eve midnight Masses because of the risks to parishioners.
Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk in northern Iraq has said that Christians will spend the Christmas season in “great fear” because of the risk of new attacks. All services and Masses have been scheduled for daylight hours as a precaution. “Midnight Christmas Mass has been canceled in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk as a consequence of the never-ending assassinations of Christians,” he told a London news agency. On Oct. 31, 2010, an attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral left 57 people dead in Baghdad.
While it is tough to say that Muslim Christian relations in the Middle East have ever been anything but tense, In September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI set off worldwide controversy while quoting Manuel II during a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Of course, the quote was in context referring to the issue of faith and reason as regards current scientific methods, and this is not the place to offer a defense of the use of the 14th century quote, but the immediate uproar in many Islamic communities was obvious and pronounced.
After the Pope’s comments, a little known Baghdad-based group, Kataab Ashbal Al-Islam Al-Salafi, threatened to kill all Christians in Iraq if the Benedict XVI did not apologize to Muhammad. Two Assyrians were stabbed and killed in Baghdad, certainly related to the events. Of course, much more horrendous retaliation was taken in other parts of the Islamic world, and these actions did little to disprove the quote.
Nonetheless, such is the current situation of Catholics and other Christians in Iraq. They sometimes go unnoticed for a time in the intra-Islamic struggles that often remind one of the bloodier days of protestant-Catholic warfare in France and Ireland of the past. But terrorism and extremism does not forget the minority of Christians in their midst for long.