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A Complex Mosaic: The Main Christian Denominations in Iraq

by Michele Lipori

by Michele Lipori. Confronti Editorial Staff

In Iraq there is a constellation of churches, each of them daughters and heirs of a complicated and troubled history. Here we give brief historical and theological notes.

Chaldean Catholic Church

The Chaldean Church is part of the Catholic Church, but preserves its own distinctive traditional liturgy, as well as aspects of the sacraments, canon law, and spiritual and theological claims. It is a Church ordered by a “patriarchy”: since January 2013 it has been run by Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako, who has the title of “Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon.” He leads his Church with the Synod, made up of all the Chaldean bishops.

The Chaldean Catholic Church broke away in 1553 from the Eastern Church (or the “Persian Church”), whose foundation by Thomas the Apostle dates to the first century. It was constituted in the fifth century as an autonomous and autocephalous Church, completely detached from Rome and also from Constantinople. Its theological doctrine is linked to Nestorius (381-451), patriarch of Constantinople, considered a heretic by the First and Second Rome (Constantinople). In particular, he affirmed that in Christ there are two natures (divine and human), and two persons (divine and human); therefore, he considered the Madonna to be the “mother of Christ” and not “Mother of God.” For the “orthodox” doctrine, however, there are two natures and one person in Christ; and Mary is “mother of God,” as the ecumenical councils of Ephesus (431) and of Chalcedon (451) sanctioned.

The liturgy takes place, depending on the circumstances, in both Arabic and Aramaic (similar to the language that Jesus spoke). In church, men and women are separated.

The Chaldeans are the largest group of Christian denominations in Iraq (about 80% of the total) with 110 churches scattered throughout the country. But, in Iraq, until about fifteen years ago there were about 1.5 million Christians; the subsequent wars and ISIS have decimated their numbers and today they are reduced to about three hundred thousand.

Syriac Church

Syriacs make up about 10% of Iraqi Christians. The denomination includes Syriac Catholics, who are the majority, and Syriac Orthodox.
The Syriac Orthodox Church– led by a patriarch–is autocephalous and, theologically, is close to Nestorius.
Separating from that in 1783 the Syrian Catholic Church was formed, preserving its own language, its own rite (Syriac-Western) and its own ecclesiastical legislation. Since 2009 it has been led by the patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians, Mar Ignatius Joseph III Younan, and its seat is in Lebanon, while that of the Syriac Orthodox Church is in Syria. In Iraq there are 82 Syriac churches, including Catholic and Orthodox.

Assyrian Church of the East

The Assyrian Church of the East is a Christian Church of the Eastern Syriac rite. It is considered the legitimate continuation of the ancient Nestorian Church, which was especially widespread in Persia. It is not in communion with any other Church. It has numerous faithful in the United States of America, who took refuge there between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to escape wars and persecutions. It is currently governed by the patriarch Mar Gewargis III, whose seat is in Erbil. In Iraq, there are 21 Assyrian churches in Iraq, 17 of which are in Baghdad. In 1968 the Ancient Eastern Church broke away from the Assyrian Church of the East, today present above all in India.

Armenian church

About 3% of Iraqi Christians belong to the Armenian Church and are largely the descendants of those who fled the persecution and genocide of 1915-1917 by the Ottoman Empire. There are 19 Armenian churches in Iraq, both Catholic and “Gregorian,” not linked to Rome. The Armenian Apostolic Church (“Gregorian” by tradition), which is part of the Ancient Eastern Churches, is one of the oldest churches in Christendom. The Catholicos (supreme leader) of all Armenians–currently Karekin II–has its headquarters in Echmiadzin, Armenia. The Armenian-Catholic Church is a patriarchal Catholic Church in communion with the Catholic Church. The Armenian catholics have their own Patriarch (the Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia), but  they recognize the papal supremacy. The Armenian-Catholic Church was born in 1742 by detaching itself from the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Seyfo, a forgotten genocide

The Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Chaldean Catholic Churches have been fighting for years for the international recognition of the Seyfo (literally “the sword”), their name for the “Assyrian genocide,” or the process of deportation and physical elimination of Christians by the Ottoman government between 1915 and 1916. According to Assyrian delegates at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, 250,000 Christians were killed in the Seyfo, about half the pre-war Christian population. In 1923, during the Lausanne Conference, the estimate was updated, reaching 275,000 units. The Turkish government (the heir in some way of the Ottoman power) has always rejected the accusations in full.

Greek Orthodox

In Iraq there are also groups of Greek Orthodox Christians, linked to the patriarchate of Antioch, as well as and groups linked to the Melkite Church (founded in 1724 by separating from the Orthodox of Antioch).

Protestant churches

In 1850 the Presbyterian Church established its mission in Mosul. In 1889, the Reformed Church in America–which in 1957 merged with the congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ–opened its mission in Basra. They were joined by the Evangelical and Reformed Church, of the United Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church to form the United Mission of Iraq (UMI) in 1924. UMI worked actively on evangelization, education and health and in the establishment of various congregations; the Protestant form of faith and worship attracted people familiar with the Churches already present in the national territory. These congregations–which were mainly concentrated in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra–became autonomous and self-sufficient over time, and were able to continue their activities even after the missionaries of the UMI were expelled from Iraq in 1969. More recently, five congregations founded the Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Iraq, formally recognized by the Iraqi government and therefore enjoying the same status as the other churches in Iraq. The exact number of churches and adherents is unknown.

431: Council of Ephesus (the third ecumenical council), in which Nestorianism is condemned. Sanctioned instead is the fact that the union of the two natures (human and divine) in Christ is fulfilled in a perfect way in Mary’s womb.

451: Council of Chalcedon (the fourth ecumenical council), in which it is established that in the one person-hypostasis (substance) of Jesus there are the two natures, human and divine, “without confusion, immutable, undivided, inseparable,” rejecting, therefore, the Monophysite doctrine which recognized Christ as the only divinity.

685: Giovanni Marone is elected Patriarch of Antioch, becoming the first Maronite to hold this office. After that date the Church of Antioch is divided between Chalcedonese and non-Chalcedonese (the majority).

1553: The then-patriarch Yukhannan (John) Sulaqa makes a profession of Catholic faith, recognized as Orthodox by the cardinals gathered in tribunal. Sulaqa opposed the modification of the mechanism for transmitting the patriarchal title by the then-Eastern Church. The modification stated that the patriarchal title would no longer be elective, but gained through inheritance within one’s own family. With this departure, Sulaqa sanctioned the birth of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

1724: The Greek-Melkite Catholic Church is born, separating itself from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, after Cyril III–then Patriarch of Antioch–reaffirmed the authority of the pope in 1709.

1781: The Syrian Catholic Church is formally united with the Catholic Church.

1968: The Ancient Church of the East splits from the Assyrian Church of the East, which is mostly present in India.

Michele Lipori

Michele Lipori

Confronti Editorial Staff

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