Iraq: the Yazidis, Jews and Christians, and the origin of ‘genocide’

Iraq: the Yazidis, Jews and Christians, and the origin of ‘genocide’

This is an extract from The Silence of Our Friends: the Extinction of Christianity in the Middle East 

The first Iraqi contact with Christianity came very early. Within Mesopotamia was a small vassal state called Osrhoene, its capital at Edessa, modern-day Turkey, the population of which was largely Aramaean.

Legend has it that the incurably ill Abgar V, King of Osrhoene, heard of Jesus and wrote a letter offering to let him stay in the country, as he was being persecuted at home. Jesus replied that he couldn’t go but he would send over his apostle Thaddeus, who arrived after the Crucifixion and cured the king of his disease. Offering asylum to the Son of God gives the country a certain moral status, but the historical reality is that Christianity had reached Edessa very early, most likely in the first century, and in the second century its King Abgar VIII converted. Edessa would remain Christian for another 18 centuries, until the First World War brought that world to an end.

Christians in Syria and Iraq at first welcomed the Arab invaders because they were persecuted by Byzantium and Persia, and felt an affinity with fellow Semites. And the Arab world flourished during the Islamic Golden Age, when Muslim rulers mixed and advanced the knowledge of Roman, Egyptian, Greek and even Chinese cultures. Yet this relied heavily on Christians who translated Greek philosophy into Syriac and then Arabic, which survived and arrived in Spain and Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries where they were copied into Latin, helping to influence the Renaissance (which was also sparked by the exodus of Greeks from Constantinople to Italy in 1453).

As Dr Suha Rassam wrote in Christianity in Iraq: “Neither the Persians who lived in Iraq, nor the Arabs that ruled the state, were conversant with Greek. In fact, translation of Greek philosophical works to Arabic was almost exclusively performed by Christian scholars. [Academic George] Qanawati enumerates over sixty translators, all of whom were Christians, except for one Sabian [a religion that focussed around the worship of angels] and one Jew.”

But the imposition of Islamic law took its toll. Umayyad caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (717-720) had introduced a series of laws for dhimmis, among them that they must not “denigrate or misquote the book of Allah”, “must not undermine a Muslim’s faith” and must not erect buildings taller than the Muslims’ structures. Furthermore a Christian could not testify against a Muslim, so they could not defend themselves in legal disputes. “Some Christians were unable to withstand the effects of the jizyah, the apostasy laws, the marriage laws and their inferior status,” writes Rassam.

After the 9th century, Arabic began to displace Syriac among the Christians and by the 12th the language was on the ropes. Because of the Islamic tax laws the Church could not afford to maintain its centres of learning, either, and the cultural influence of the Assyrians began to wane, to the loss of the Islamic world too, which by the 13th century had passed its golden age and was in a state of prolonged cultural decline.

From the 18th century the Ottoman Empire, alarmed at how far behind Western Europe it had fallen, began to open up its borders, and its sheer weakness meant that it had to make trading concessions to Western governments. As part of these agreements France and Britain would act as protectors to Christians within the empire, following a precedent that went all the way back to Charlemagne but which had certainly been cemented by treaty between France and Turkey in the 16th century. The French would act as protectors for Catholics in the region, the British for the Assyrians, a role they have performed with less than godfatherly diligence.

More beneficial was the influence of Western Christians and Jews in promoting education. From the early 17th century, religious orders arrived in Iraq, the Capuchins followed by Carmelites and Dominicans. The Carmelites opened the first Baghdad primary school in 1721, St Joseph’s, while Dominicans did the same for Mosul in 1750. Catholics also introduced the first printing press in Iraq in 1860, and Jews set up one of the earliest modern schools, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, in 1865. It accepted non-Jewish students.

Iraq had had a considerable Jewish population stretching back to the Exile, and Jews comprised a third of Baghdad’s population on the eve of the First World War. Today there are 8 Jews left in Iraq. The country was also home to Mandeans, dualists who probably emerged from a Gnostic sect living west of the river Jordan in the first and second centuries. They believe in a World of Light and World of Darkness, and that the soul is imprisoned in the body and is freed by the redeemer, Manda d- Hiia, the personified “knowledge of life”. They denounce violence and have multiple baptism, and because of this like living near rivers. Then there are the Yazidi, who live in northern Iraq, mix traditional Kurdish beliefs with elements of Islam and Zoroastrianism, and believe that God created seven angels to care for the world, the most important of which is a Peacock Angel.

This mosaic was shattered by the Great War, in which Syriac-speakers suffered heavily, not just in the genocide but fighting for the Assyrian Levies alongside the British. It was a troubled relationship, and among the various promises that the British made during the conflict, many of which contradicted each other, were those to the Assyrians of northern Iraq who they appeared to have promised a state. Mar Shimon, the Assyrian leader, felt betrayed by Britain, which instead pushed them into the new kingdom of Iraq – and since then their history has been littered with tragedy.

A new and unwelcome addition was made to the English language in 1933 – genocide. It was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer working for the League of Nations, in response to the massacre of 3,000 Assyrian villagers by the new state of Iraq. Ironically Lemkin was a Polish Jew and would lose 49 relatives in the Holocaust, although after taking part in the defence of Warsaw he managed to escape to Sweden.

After the war and the establishment of Israel in 1948, Iraq’s Jewish population of 150,000, which had been in the country for 25 centuries, was airlifted to Israel to escape massive levels of violence. Christians suffered various degrees of repression but numbered as many as 1.4 million in 1987 when a census was taken under Saddam Hussein. They were certainly ill-treated under Ba’athism, although it was motivated primarily by ethnic rather than religious hatred, as Saddam sought to Arabize Aramaic-speakers in the north, as well as Kurds.

But the American invasion of 2003 was followed, in less than a decade, by the almost total destruction of a community who trace their faith back 18 centuries, and their language and culture much longer, under the watch of their co-religionists from the most powerful state on earth.

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