Herman Tuele, chair of Eastern Christianity for Radboud University in the Netherlands, spoke about Christianity in Iraq during the Kennedy Center Lecture on Wednesday. Tuele discussed the history of Christianity in Iraq, the current condition and what is done in Iraq today for Christians.
Beginning with the history of Christianity in Mesopotamia but more specifically in Iraq, Tuele explained that in the 6th century Christians from the west began to penetrate into the Persian empire. He spoke of the periods when Christians were persecuted throughout the Middle East and the constant desire they felt to be Christian and Arab. Tuele said that in the Middle East, religion and government are not usually separated. After World War I, many of the Christian churches left for other countries, but some leaders simply relinquished their roles as government leaders and became “content with a religious role,” Tuele said.
More recently, Christian leaders have identified themselves simply as Assyrians. And certain ruling bodies, such as the Kurdish government, have appreciated that distinction and given more political power to those groups. Tuele said according to Iraq’s constitution, cultural and ethnic minorities can build a structure to maintain identities.
Some Christian groups have begun to bond together and wish to be recognized more publicly, such as the parliament in Iraq. Tuele said although there may be many Christians, because of recent persecution they have moved to countries such as Jordan and Syria.
Tuele said the “small community” of Christians today numbers somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000, which is down from 1 million at the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign. He also said Sarkis Aghajan, a Christian leader in Iraq, is pushing for political autonomy for Christians, an idea which is being debated today.
At the end of his lecture, Tuele discussed a recent book by Philip Jenkins and the theology of extinction. Tuele said the book, which is focused on the numbers of Christians declining in Iraq, is not entirely correct.
“The senate and Vatican in Rome was convened to fix that,” Tuele said.
He also expressed that the trend of Christians leaving places like Iraq is on the decline and he is hopeful more will come back.