Starting place of first Christianity in Iraq, long before this picture was taken in 1958.


Christianity in Iraq A Brief Historical Survey
By Dr. Naima Panow M.D.


Dr. Naima S. Panow, MD,FRCS (medical doctor Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) is a graduate of the Iraq Medical School and had MB.Ch.B. Upon completion she attended Royal College of Surgeons in London-England, Royal College of OB/GYN in London, and Royal College of surgeons of Edinburgh-Scotland. Her practice consists of, General surgery and -OB/GYN in the United States.

picture: Naima Panow at tomb of Mar Matti, in Iraq

What is called now Iraq was the first Cradle of civilization.

In the beginning
Stone tools were found dated back 100,000 years ago. A complete skeleton with a skull was found in a cave at the city of Arbel in northern Iraq. His age was dated 45,000 years ago.

Sumeria and the birth of civilization 5000 years B.C.
Mesopotamian delta was the scene of man's greatest progress. They change from single scattered farming unite to an urban society. Later on the first great towns were built at Ur, Uruk and Eridu. Irrigation network of dams and canals were well achieved. The Archaeologists and historian are of the opinion that the Sumerians were the first to develop a form of civilization.

1-They invented the writing 3200 years B.C. They had scholars studying man's history.
2-They started keeping historical record.
3-They invented the potter's wheel and later on developed the four-wheeled chariot.
4-They invented new forms of water transport such as the sailing boat and increased their trade with cities on the Peninsula and the Arabian Gulf.
5-They discovered how to smelt and work metal and the techniques of glazing and welding.
They had a system of philosophy and metaphysics, The Lyre of Ur dating 2450 B.C. bears witness to the importance of music and musical instruments, engraving, precious stones inlay and jewelry and so on.

The Akkadians
The Akkadians were one of the oldest Semitic tribes to settle in Mesopotamian delta and under king Sargon; in about 2350 B.C. King Sargon invaded all the cities in the Middle East and as far as the Arabian Gulf. He built the first empire. There was a great economic expansion. The Akkadians traded with Anatolian copper mines and they used it for tools and weapons. Their military conquests helped them to spread their civilization. The kingdom lasted for almost two centuries until in 2159 B.C. a mountain people invaded Sumer and Akkad destroying all cities in their path.

The Babylonians (1894-1594 B.C.)
The Babylonian dynasty lasted for 300 years under the rule of eleven kings. Babylonian Language both spoken and written was in use in all Near Eastern countries. Trade, science, frontiers of knowledge was pushed forward. They started the centralized administration; a codified system of law was in force in the country. The same laws were famous code of the immortal Hammurabi. He was the 6th king of Babylonians.

The Kassites
Not much known about this era (1483-1412 B.C.)

The Assyrians
A Semitic tribe, which emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in the north of Iraq around 3000 B.C. They started the records, the history and important events of the year under the name of the chief minister appointed by the king. Under king Assur-Nasirpal (884-858 B.C) invaded and conquered most of the near and far countries. He fought against the Arameans and captured Damascus using chariots for the first time in man's history. The kingdom was divided into provinces for which he appointed a governor. He built his great city of Nimrud. This was one of the greatest achievements of Assyrian architecture.

King Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) was well known for civil engineering achievements. He enlarged and extended the irrigation system and constructed a large number of reservoirs. He brought water to Nineveh.

King Ashurbanipal (669-629 B.C.) He built up an immense library, which included translation of Sumerian, Akkadians and Babylonian texts. He collected and indexed scientific works. More than 24,000 clay tablets have been found in the palace library at Nineveh.

The Chaldeans (626-539 B.C)
In 612 B.C. Nineveh the capital of Assyria was captured and destroyed by the Chaldeans. The most famous king was Nabu-chadonossar. He enlarged the city of Babylon and also built the Seven Wonders of the World, the hanging gardens, were created for his wife. He built gateway of Ishtar, which is made of colored glazed bricks with carving the shape of a lion. All this is in Berlin Museum. He was very religious reformer and propagated Babylonian culture through out the whole of the Middle East. These two great civilizations were the first who accepted the Christianity after Christ.

Before the birth of Christ, Iraq went through a turbulent history. The emperor of Persia Cyrus occupied Mesopotamia, followed by that the Greek-Macedonian Alexander the Great and so on until the Islam invaded all the Middle East, Asia Minor (Turkey), Persia and the rest in the year 637 A.D. The Islam invaded Mesopotamia forcing their new religion on the country and some accepted to become Moslem; other kept their faith of Christianity and Judaism. The Arab-Islamic Army liberated Iraq from the Persian invaders and followed them deep inside Iran and spread their religion as well. By the year 651 A.D the Arab-Islamic empire controlled every thing and Islam was the chief religion of the Empire.

The following pages would be dealing with the Christianity in Iraq. Christianity roots in Iraq. How they were able to keep their faith up to day.

Christianity in Iraq----By Naima Panow
Christianity's roots run deep in contemporary Iraq. Prior to the birth of Jesus, the people that once inhabited the "land between the rivers" played an important role in the development of Judaism. "Abraham was called from Ur of the land of the Chaldeans".

The Assyrians centered in the northern Mesopotamia city of Nineveh. They waged war on the Israelites, forcing the king of Judah to pay tribute to them.

The Chaldeans or at that time were called the Babylonian were centered in the middle and the south part of Mesopotamia. Jeremiah prophesied the Babylonians destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and the Babylonian exile. In the book of apocryphal book of Daniel, the young Daniel interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonian king and predicted his downfall.

The destinies of the Judean Kingdom and the Mesopotamia empires were woven together, an uneasy mixture of culture and politics.

The Beginning of the Christianity.
St. Thomas the doubting apostle brought the Christianity to the ancient Mesopotamia in 33 A.D. History clearly indicated that St. Thomas came from the Syrian city of Edessa (present day Urfa in southern Turkey). Two more strong Christians came with him, Mar Addai and Mar Mari. (Mar in Aramaic means Lord) to establish the Assyrian Church of the East.

The church centered and spread from the Assyrian city of Arbel in the north of Iraq (Currently in the new created Kurdistan Iraq) 

Early Mesopotamian Christianity was Semitic Linguistically. They spoke Aramaic in Syria, Palestine, Assyrian and Chaldeans, (Babylonians) Empires.

As Christianity spread in both the Assyrian and the Chaldeans people more and more accepted Christ. On the north of Mesopotamia the Assyrian king Sennacherib (he is not the same king in the years B.C) was upset to know that Sheik Matti baptized his son Behnam , his daughter Sarah and 40 of the friends of the prince. Princess Sarah had Leprosy and no one was able to heal her. Behnam and his friends decided to take Sarah to be healed by Mar Matti.  Sarah was healed from Leprosy in the name of Christ.  They accepted the Christianity and were baptized by Mar Matti. The king was so upset to hear that, he beheaded his son, daughter and the 40 friends of the prince Behnam . (I have been in their church out side Mosel) The king was so upset and left his palace walking in the fields and screaming as loud as he can. He  could not take care of his kingdom. The queen was crying for her two children, suddenly Behnam appeared to her asking her to bring Mar Matti to heal his father. The Queen begged the king to accept that. Finally the king sent his men to bring Mar matti to the palace and pray for him and heal him.  The king was healed and asked Mar Matti to baptize  him and his family. He asked his people to accept the Christianity as the official religion of the country.   

Sheik Matti or Mar Matti joined with many monks lived in the mountains out side Mosel. They lived in caves, carved small rooms to live in and you still see the caves where they lived all over the mountain. Before the king accepted the Christianity, they carved a small observatory on the edge of the mountain. As soon as they see the king army arrive to the base of the mountain, they rush to enter the  carved tunnel they created to take them to the other side of the mountain.  They close the out side door by rocks and stay on the other side of the mountain until the army retreat. This was done for many times until the king accepted the  Christianity.                             

I have been to that area and could not believe how these monks lived and survived. The largest cave was for Mar Matti. There was a small alter to use for Communion and celebrate the mass on daily bases. A small flat carved bed was for Mar Matti.  They all slept on the hard rock bed.  In the middle of the mountain there was a good size cave dripping water. That was enough for them to live on.

Many churches still exist from the early days, like the old church of Saint Simon Al- Safa in Mosel. Under the vault a beautiful inscription in Syriac language, was made by brick and marble. It is still standing in spite of so many wars and destructions.

To spread the Christianity all the world as they knew it then, St Mark went to Egypt and north Africa.  St Paul went to Antioch on his way to Asia Minor. He went to Greek and closer countries. St Thomas went to Mesopotamia and India.

Europe did not accept the Christianity until 324 years after Christ. St Helena the mother of the Emperor Constantine who went to Palestine to find the real Cross of the Lord. The Emperor himself, lost many battles, but one day he found the sign of the Cross on his palace. He used that sign on his flags. He won the battles one after the other. When his mother brought pieces of the cross of the Lord to Rome, he accepted the Christianity. The official religion was changed to the Christianity.  As you can see, Iraq was the first country to accept the Christianity only 33 years after Christ followed by the Antioch,  yet Europe accepted the Christianity after 324 years after Christ.

On the fourth century several schools of thoughts evolved.
1-The school of Alexandria led by St. Cyril, which pressed Jesus divine nature.
2-The school of Antioch led by Nestorios the patriarch of Constantinople, which advocated Jesus humanity.

Both schools did not agree how to deal with our Lady the Mother of Jesus. St Cyril called her the God- Bearer, while the second school called her Christ bearer. In the year 431 A.D. the Ecumenical council of Ephesus rejected the second school and adopted St. Cyril school. The Mesopotamian church rejected the council. Since the Byzantine emperor in the west wanted to follow St. Cyril School to bring all Christians together. The Church of Mesopotamia accepted the Nestorian church for a political reason and not to be under the control of the Byzantines. That was the first division of the church.

In the Seventh century, Arab tribes from Saudi Arabia conquered Mesopotamia, Palestine and North Africa. Islam became the dominant religion in Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. (The British created Jordan later on) Under Islam, Christian communities became self-contained, led by its Clerics.

The dominant church of the region, the Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian) developed as a great missionary body. From Mesopotamia they spread the Christianity to India, China and other countries. They established monasteries and schools and even converted a ninth century Chinese emperor and his court. The Indian Christianity traces its foundation to the Nestorian church of Mesopotamia.

The Islam accepted the Christianity and Judaism as a religion of God. It is written in the Koran that both Jesus and Moses are Prophets.

There is one complete chapter called, "The chapter of Meriem." All Moslems call her, "The ever Virgin Mariem-Mary. "    It is said that, Mohammad livid in the desert, met with monk Bohaira who taught him all about the Christianity. He married a Christian woman called Khadeja and had two daughters. Their wedding ceremony was carried out by Khadeja's uncle a bishop. After Khadeja died, Mohammad at the age of 45 started his religion and called it Islam.

All three religions lived and worked together with out any problem until one young Moslem Militant desecrated the old Christian churches in Palestine.  They broke down the statues, burned the Icons and damaged every thing in the old churches.  The General Moslem who invaded and occupied Palestine refused to pray in the church not because they did not believe in Christ, but they said, Once we enter and pray in the church, it would be changed to a Mosque. That is why the mosques are built just close or opposite the churches all over the world. Opposite the largest church in the world, St Peter, Libya built a large Mosque in Rome.

Once the news arrived to Europe, a volunteer Christian army was created and they carried their flag with the sign of the Cross. This army was called the French army in the Middle East and the Crescendos in Europe.

On their way from Europe to Palestine they invaded and occupied most of the countries. They did their best to rape, kill and occupy every thing. The Moslem countries fought back until the Kurdish general Salah Al Dean Al Ayoubi won the battle and sent back the French to their country.  The Christian and the Jews backed the Crescendos and that was the first time the Moslem did not trust them.

Things were better until the Turkish Empire came to power, they were harder on all countries they conquered the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. Christianity suffered all over. Their churches were damaged, thousands were killed for being a Christian or a Jew.   

If you read in history you find out there were hundreds of Priest and Bishops in North Africa, and now there is one or two bishops in North Africa. According to my grandfather biography he said, "For 2 1/2 years they were not able to leave the house. The Kurds in their area, killed their sheep, goats and cows for fun or to starve them to death. It was the worst embargo of the civilian for just being Christians. "

According to some books and historians, the Turks killed millions of Christians all over the world. The Armenians Christians were nearly completely massacred by the Moslems. Since my family lived in the south of Turkey, the Kurds controlling that area killed, rapid, kidnapped the young girls for sex or for a wife. Many Christian fathers were ordered to undress their young virgin daughter to help the Kurd to rape them. Both father and daughters were killed after that.

Many Armenians left their homes and lived in the Middle East and especially in Iraq. They became a part of the Christianity in Iraq. They build their churches, run their schools and joined the part of Iraqi Orthodox church but kept their culture and language alive.

The 20th century has been particularly difficult for the Christians in Iraq. In 1914-1915 the Turkish Empire joined the German army against the allies in WW1. Britain promised the Christians homeland if they joined with the allied against the Ottoman Empire. (Every body knows the promise of Lawrence of Arabia during the WW1) The horrors of the World War 1 forced scores to flee their homeland. Between 1915-1918, the Ottoman Turks massacred more than 50,000 Christians in Mesopotamia. Thousands died in Cholera epidemic of 1918. Many died on the way fleeing from Turkey to Iraq and Syria.

The Assyrian Church of the East suffered the most. Half of their congregation, including, priest, bishops, men, women and children were murdered or died of diseases. Many Christian villages were massacred completely.

Since the Christians joined the British and the French during the war, the Moslems distrust the Christians and called them pro- west.     The war was over, the British double-crossed the Christians and they created the country of Iraq to be under their control. They divided the Ottoman Empire between the English and the French. Iraq has OIL and the best country to build military bases to be able to control nearly most of the world.  They were not able to control Iraq from 1918 - 1920. The Iraqis fought back and The British realized they are not able to occupy Iraq any more. The Christians lost as usual for being with the British.  Prince Faisel  wanted Syria, but the French wanted to control Syria. They divided Syria (mainly Moslem) and Lebanon (mainly Christian).

Sir Percy Cox of the British Colonial Office created Iraq in 1921. He draws a border that includes part of Kurdistan, between Iran and the original Mesopotamia and separated Kuwait as a British base, which was originally part of Basra province. (In 1958 the British signed the treaty with Iraq Royal family, to give them back Kuwait in 1962.  Revolution happened and the Iraqi nationalized the oil fields which up set the British, they double crossed  Iraq and cancelled the original treaty and created the Emirate of Kuwait) In 1962 Kuwait was officially named the Emirate of Kuwait. In 1967 was admitted to the UN.

Britain set up the Kingdom of Iraq, uniting diverse ethnic and religious groups. The Kurds wanted their united Kurdistan in the north of Iraq although the larges part of there country is in Turkey. The Christian lost their homeland and suffered the consequences of their affiliation with the west.

The Christians were caught in a "Catch 22". The Christians were identified with the Westerns. countries.  In the first years of the creation of Iraq, the government did not trust the Christians. They were not allowed  to be in the Army, or in the government except in a low level of positions. 1n 1930-1940 Thousands of Chaldeans immigrated to US and Europe. Those who decided to stay in Iraq rushed to join the colleges and universities. The Jews did the same and had no problem to live and work in Iraq. The Christians and Jewish schools and colleges were well accepted. They had the best education, business was great and they start living with the Moslem community. Later on the Moslem people decided to join colleges and universities and even their children were sent to Christian schools. The Baghdad College- a Jesuit High school and Al -Hekkma University run by the Jesuit Priests. Many powerful Moslems sent their sons and daughters to join these colleges and Universities. Many of them are now in the new Iraq Government.  
In 1927, the first medical school was opened. Men and women were admitted.  In 1935 the first woman graduated from the medical college was a  Christian. Doctors, teachers, nurses, pharmacists, accountants, and business people were mainly Christians or Jews since they were not accepted to join the army or the government.

After WW11 Britain created Israel and divided Palestine again. Once divided Palestine to the proper Palestine and the creation of the kingdom of Jordan, then Palestine and Israel. The Christian suffered again. Although, they were not given their homeland, but they were called again as the Pro-West people. Many Christians immigrated to the US, Australia and Europe. Many Jews left Iraq to live in Israel but some stayed and worked in Iraq until this 2003. 

 When I applied to the Medical school in Baghdad, I was told only 5% Christians would be accepted to any college or university. I was the top student in Basra province. They decided to consider me as from the birth city origin. I was the top in Mosel province as well, so they had no other reason to refuse me. 

It was not easy as a Christian to be at school or university. Many times my notes, books  were stolen so that I would fail the exam. Finally after the revolution the students start hurting us. I refused to become a communist they wanted to kill me. One time I had to flee to a place out side Baghdad because they got chains and robes to drag me in the street until I die. I sent a Christian student who was with the Communist to bring me a Moslem professor to help me leave to a safer place. Three days later I came back and went to see the Dean of the college. He informed the power center in the government to protect me. Ironically years later one of the doctors who tried to kill me, asked me to take care of his wife who had a shock due to sever bleeding.

This Moslem Communist doctor,  sat on the floor thanking me and asked me, " I am surprised how you dealt with it. We wanted to kill you and you saved my wife's life?" I told him Jesus asked us to do that. When Saddam Hussein took power, he trusted Christians more than the Moslems. When he leaves Baghdad, usually go to eat at Christian homes and sit in the kitchen or the dinning room with the family. For the first time a Christian have risen to a high level in the government. Deputy Prime minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean and well accepted all over the world. It would be sad to change this for oil.

During the Gulf War and since then, many Christians left Iraq. There are only 2% Christians in Iraq. Due to the US led embargo on Iraq since 1990, lack of food, medicine, business, money and so on, Christians and Moslems  left the country to survive. Although every body is suffering and the Christians are suffering more because the Christians (US & UK) are the cause of this destruction of Iraq. The embargo imposed by the US through UN for 12 1/2 years destroyed the society, the life family and the freedom of Iraqis.  The so called Christian countries US and UK destroyed Iraq from north to south and east to west. Destruction was all over.  During the Gulf war St Tomas church 800 years old was destroyed by the US thinking Saddam was there. Many Moslem Mosques were completely bombed. The Assyrians suffered the most because the Chaldeans had families in the US since 1930-1940 their immigration to the US was easier.    The Assyrian Christians were not accepted easily by the US not even a visa because they are Iraqi.

After the Gulf war the Christians suffered. There are three sections of Christianity in Iraq.

1-The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian church of the East, estimate 800,000 members

2-The Assyrian Orthodox church estimate members 700,000.

3-The Chaldean church of Babylon estimate 1,000,000 and may be 800,000 members only.

Catholic Charity and the congress of churches brought food and medicine to both Christians and Moslems. Every Church received aids from the Vatican according to the members of their congregation. But the Moslems come to the church and get their share as well. Just like what Jesus told us to do. I was there as the head of the Arab American medical association,  I noticed the Governor and his group used to come to the church to meet with the Bishop and the priest to celebrate Easter, Christmas days with them.

After the Gulf War I went four times to Iraq with the humanitarian mission.  It was so sad to see the people suffering especially the children.   I had to take so much supplies handled to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent in Jordan to be taken to Iraq.  I was so surprised to see how the priest who had 40 orphans with out food, had to wait 4-5 hours before they would tell him come back tomorrow, the same thing with the nuns. Yet a Moslem clergy is given twice the amount of what he asked for. Those who control this were from Jordan (had US Passport I did report them to the US embassy in Amman Jordan) I did report them to the Iraqi consular in Washington D.C. When Saddam heard about this, the directors fled Iraq immediately and burned the warehouse as soon as they left. Each one took 14 million dollars with them.

If Saddam is removed and the US invades Iraq, the Christians would suffer the most and some already told my brother, "When Saddam is removed we would finish you." Hope the Iraqi remove him rather than the US."  The US did remove Abdul Kareem Kassim in a coup.   If they want peace and get the oil and build bases in Iraq, they could do that with out bombing and killing more innocent people. Due to the Embargo which imposed by the US through UN, 1'000,000 children died due to starvation and diseases. Another 750,000 Iraqis died.   It might take more than 100 years to bring Christianity back to Iraq. Those who are living there have no money and no place to go to. Embargo destroyed them and their economy.  They are between the rock and the hard place.

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