Iraq’s Christian minority — in the cross hairs
Iraq’s provisional constitution signed in March and in force until elections planned for January, guarantees freedom for all religions
Iraq’s Christian community, targeted in a string of attacks on Baghdad churches on Saturday, represents some three percent of the population, or approximately 700,000 of the country’s 24 million mainly Shiite and Sunni Muslim population. In the only other coordinated attack on Christians since the fall of Saddam Hussein last year, a series of bombings in the northern city of Mosul and in Baghdad left at least 10 people dead and 50 wounded in August.
Iraq’s provisional constitution signed in March and in force until elections planned for January, guarantees freedom for all religions.
Article Seven says Islam is the official state religion “and a source of the legislation”. “This Constitution respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi population while guaranteeing complete freedom of all other religions and religious practices,” it says. The 1970 constitution adopted under the old regime guaranteed freedom of religion and prohibited any religious discrimination.
It also acknowledged that the people of Iraq consisted of “two principal nationalities,” Arab and Kurd, and “other nationalities”, whose rights were considered legitimate. In December 1972, the head of the ruling Baath Party identified these by decree as the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. The Chaldeans, whose 600,000 people represent the majority of Christians in Iraq, are an oriental rite Catholic community.
Their church emerged from the Nestorian doctrine, which it renounced in the 16th century while preserving its rites. Former Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz, currently in custody, is the best known of the Chaldeans. The Assyrians, believed to be approximately 50,000 in number, are Christians who remained faithful to the Nestorian doctrine.
The Nestorian church became a dissident movement in 431 AD after the Council of Ephesus. They affirm that Christ has two separate personalities — namely human and divine — and not a single personality possessing both human and divine nature as Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy believe.e.
In Iraq, there are also Catholic and Orthodox Syriacs, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, and since the time of the British mandate after World War I, Protestants, Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Many Iraqi Christians still speak Aramaic-Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ. During the 1970s, bilingual cultural magazines in Arabic and Syriac were published and radio and television transmitted programmes in Aramaic. In the northern region of Kurdistan, Christians number about 150,000, mostly Chaldeans. Christians are represented by only one minister in the interim Iraqi government to which the US-led coalition handed over power in June.
Poverty and war induced many Christians to start leaving Iraq starting in the early 1980s. Nearly half-a-million have gone in the last 15 years.
Since the fall of former president Saddam Hussein’s secular regime, many of Iraq’s Christians have kept a lower profile for fear of being equated with the largely Christian US-led forces present in the country. afp