The fate of an ancient faith

6 O’Clock Prayer is held outside The Church of Mar Addai, with Father Thabet (left) leading the prayer, (Father Yousif (center) and Bishop Michael Najib (right). Photo: ALEXANDRA ROSE HOWLAND

Please take the time to read Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic: “The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East.” Through the story of Catrin and Evan Almako’s story, Green reports on the fate of pluralism in the region. She is simply a top-notch reporter.

  • “The graph of the religion’s decline in the Middle East has in recent years transformed from a steady downward slope into a cliff. The numbers in Iraq are especially stark: Before the American invasion, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain—an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.”
  • “The precarious state of Christianity in Iraq is tragic on its own terms. The world may soon witness the permanent displacement of an ancient religion, and an ancient people. Those indigenous to this area share more than faith: They call themselves Suraye and claim a connection to the ancient peoples who inhabited this land long before the birth of Christ.”
  • After ISIS had been chased out of Karamles, the remains of their takeover lingered: “The devastation that awaited was breathtaking. The hands of one life-size statue of Mary, robed in bright blue, had been chopped off at the wrists. The bell of St. Adday, which had ushered residents to safety the night ISIS arrived, now sat lopsided in its tower. The church itself had been partially burned black; [Father] Thabet believes that fighters may have set off explosives a few days before they made their retreat. Decapitated statues of Mary and Jesus surrounded the altar, along with the remnants of angels that had been shot off the walls. Thabet found a torn piece of his ordination vestments in the rubble—the only object he has to remind him of the day he vowed to serve his community.”
  • “According to data from the U.S. State Department and the charity World Relief, only 23 Iraqi Christians were admitted to the United States in 2018, compared with nearly 2,000 in 2016. Families still in Iraq now look to Europe and Australia instead.”
  • “Chaldean worship services offer a rich sensory experience, filled with reminders that this tradition developed in the first few hundred years after Christ. The sexes usually sit separately, and women cover their head with lace as a sign of modesty. Acolytes swing sweet incense, trailing clouds of smoke through the aisles. Mass is celebrated in a dialect of Aramaic called Sureth—the native language of Christians here and a sibling of the language Jesus spoke.”
  • “Elsewhere in the Middle East, Christians face similar existential threats. In Turkey, the government takes an active role in religious repression. Armenian Christians live with near-daily threats and vandalism from neighbors who are given impunity by local police. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proclaimed his desire to prevent violence and discrimination against Christians, but has largely proved powerless to do so. He recently celebrated the opening of a massive cathedral east of Cairo, declaring of Muslims and Christians, “We are one, and we will remain one.” Yet the Copts, Egypt’s largest Christian minority group, have been victims of routine bombings and mass shootings over the past several years. On Palm Sunday in 2017, explosions at two churches left more than 40 dead. This past November, Islamic militants attacked buses driving through the western desert, killing seven people and wounding others.”
  • “If Christians continue to leave the Nineveh Plain and other areas like it, a powerful history will come to an end. In the Protestant mind-set dominant in the U.S., the body of the Church is wherever the people are. But for the ancient Christian groups of Iraq, this is not the case. The people I met there constantly reminded me that Assyrian culture was founded before Christianity. They point to the remnants of ancient aqueducts and settlement mounds, evidence of the empire that once flourished in this region.
  • “For them, Christianity is not just a faith. It is an attachment to a place, a language, a nationality. Scattered across countries and continents, that sense of identity—as a people, not just as members of a religion—is much more difficult to maintain. Securing the fate of the Nineveh Plain is crucial “to protect our identity, our patrimony, our language,” Thabet told me. “We are the original people of Iraq.”


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