Because of the poor security, Iraqi Christians had to celebrate midnight mass at sundown instead. Many Christians have fled Iraq for Syria and elsewhere, while others are afraid to go to the churches, which have been targeted in the past by bombers. Ironically, the secular Arab nationalist regimes like the Syrian Baath have typically been favorable to local Christians, since they downplay religious identity.
The year 2005 has not been kind to Iraqi Christians, who number around 700,000. Like all Iraqis, they face problems of insecurity, violence, and kidnapping. But they are sometimes unfairly targeted as pro-Western. About 80 percent of Iraqi Christians are Uniate Catholics or Chaldeans, who acknowledge the Pope but have their own liturgy. Pope John Paul II, it should be remembered, opposed the Iraq War. The other 20 percent are Assyrians, rooted in a historical legacy of the Nestorian, Aramaic-using church of the Near East, though most of these have moved away from classical Nestorian theology (which emphasized the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and refused to recognize the Mother Mary as the “mother of God.”) These are old, local churches.
The political events of 2005 often harmed the interests of the Chaldean and Assyrian Christians. The ballot boxes they should have received in their region of Ninevah in the north for the Jan. 30 elections often never arrived. They also alleged that they were slighted unfairly in the recent Dec. 15 polls. At some 3 percent of the population, they would ideally have eight or so seats in the parliament, but do not.
The constitution forged in summer of 2005 and approved in a referendum on Oct. 15 makes Islam the religion of state in Iraq and says that the civil parliament may pass no legislation that contravenes Islamic law.
Chaldeans and Assyrians vehemently protested these provisions, to no avail. They were especially concerned that the constitution likely makes it illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity, and therefore puts Christians in legal peril if they are responsible for such conversions. It may also be that some Christian sentiments about Islam will be regarded as blasphemous, as has happened in nearby Pakistan.
Iraq’s Christians have also often been disadvantaged by the movement of Kurds into northern Iraq and Kurdish hopes of annexing much of Kirkuk and Ninevah to Kurdistan. There is often tension between Iraqi Christians and the Kurds because of these territorial issues.
The Chaldeans are deeply worried about their future. They are concerned with the likely impact on their community of emigration (because of the bad security) and of the rise in Iraq of political Islam. They are also profoundly fearful and resentful of evangelical Protestant targeting of their members for conversion. (In modern Middle Eastern history, Presbyterians and Baptists have on a number of occasions launched a big push to convert Muslims, which invariably failed miserably, after which the missionaries turned their attention to local Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and other Middle Eastern Christians).
It seems clear that the new order that Bush has brought to Iraq holds substantial perils for the indigenous Iraqi Christian community.
Juan Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan. He writes a widely read blog, Informed Consent: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion. This particular entry appeared on Christmas Day.