Iraqi Christian Heritage

Iraqi Christians are one of the oldest continuous Christian populations in the world and live primarily in Baghdad and the Nineveh Plains in Northern Iraq. They are among the last people on earth who speak Aramaic – the dialect spoken by Jesus. They are a community often forgotten by the Western world, continuing to endure varying degrees of indignities and atrocity that have plagued them since the 13th century. As a group they have often been lost beneath the multitudes of media headlines that documented the horrors of Da’esh (ISIS).

SWIC is committed to the long-term development of a more peaceful, prosperous and diverse Iraq. Since the brutal destruction of Christian communities by ISIS the stakes have never been higher – from a religious, cultural, humanitarian, political, and economic standpoint. With only 300,000 of the original 1.5million Christians remaining, the disappearance of this historic and resilient community, and their historic contributions to Iraq’s pluralistic society, would be catastrophic for the whole nation, including the Muslim majorities. Through supporting both agriculture and education, SWIC is helping to build a healthy and sustainable foundation for the current and next generation. However, we face significant challenges that can only be solved with love and support from those of us outside the conflict areas.

 

YOU CAN HELP

Learning the plight of this resilient group of people led to the establishment of Stand With Iraqi Christians (SWIC) in 2015. SWIC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support, through friendship and material aid, the sustainability of Christians and their communities in Iraq so they survive and thrive. SWIC is uniquely positioned to respond to the needs of Iraqi Christians and the larger multi-ethnic and diversely religious community that surrounds them.

 

By supporting our partners in Iraq, developing trustworthy relationships, and spreading awareness of the plight of these Christians, SWIC envisions a more tolerant, diverse, prosperous, and peaceful country. However, we face significant challenges that can only be solved with love and support from those of us outside the conflict areas. It is time for Iraqis to return home now that ISIS no longer controls the city of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. ISIS is a radical anti-Western militant group that successfully seized control of the majority of Iraq and Syria destroying communities and killing anyone who opposed their beliefs. With growing support from the Western Christian community, SWIC is determined to respond to the cries for help from Iraq and support our brothers and sisters in their transition back to their homes.

Iraq is a nation of approximately 37 million souls divided into several historic and religiously diverse ethnic groups—the Sunni and Shi’a being the most recognized groups worldwide. Arabic speaking Iraqis include the Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians, which can be further divided into the Feylis, Yazidis, and Shabaks. This tremendous ethnic diversity has been the source of conflict in Iraq for hundreds of years.

Early Christian Presence
During the 1st century, the region of Assyria now known as the Nineveh Plains became an important center of Christian worship, but after the eighth century, Christians had difficulties living peacefully in what became a predominantly Muslim country. During the ninth and 10th centuries, Baghdad was the center of the Arab caliphate during the “Golden Age of Islam”, became a global center of inter-religious encounter and dialogue, and growing to be the largest city in the world by the beginning of the 10th century.

During the next millennia numerous discriminatory practices, persecutions, and pograms culminated in the Assyrian Genocide during World War I which accounted for the death of approximately half of Iraq’s Christians. Life under British rule after 1933 was not much better, as the Iraqi military administered a large-scale massacre of the Assyrian people as retribution for supporting British colonization.

Despite extreme hardship and severe persecution, Assyrian Christians have left an indelible mark in modern history. The Christians played a crucial role in moderating political, social, and cultural development in Iraq. Under King Faisal of Iraq’s rule from 1921 to 1933, religious diversification was encouraged and tolerated by the various ethnic groups. A pseudo unity grew between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Jews, and Christians. King Faisal was famous for including different ethnic and religious groups in his administration and believed that Islam badly needed ‘a modern-minded religious class’. When prompted by an aide to eradicate Christians from Iraq, King Faisal replied:

“If you have a field, why would you pull up the flowers? Christians bring beauty and fragrance to Iraq. They shall remain.”

Contemporary Challenges
Saddam Hussein loosely adopted King Faisal’s mindset during his rule from 1979 to 2003. He even appointed Tariq Aziz, an ethnic Christian, as his top minister and Iraq’s international spokesperson for twenty years.

Ethnic tensions were suppressed until the U.S. invasion removed Hussein in 2003. Political chaos ensued between Muslim factions and, as with any war, the poor and minorities suffered the most with no one to advocate for them. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over 2.2 million Iraqis were displaced by 2007—as many 100,000 fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month– and violence towards Muslims and Christians rose as they were subjected to relentless abductions, torture, and bombings. This trend reached a nadir when Al Qaeda took 58 Christians hostage at the Lady of Salvation Church in 2010, murdering them all in one of the worst attacks against Christians since the start of the war.

However, many remained in the divided country living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in special camps in Erbil, Kurdistan. Prosperous and middle-class families found themselves living in parks and abandoned buildings with few belongings save the clothes on their backs. The Chaldean Catholic and Assyrian Orthodox churches responded immediately by providing water, food, and blankets to meet their physical needs. The churches significantly reduced suffering for the short term as many expected their predicament to last no more than a few months. As weeks became years, those living as IDPs found their monetary savings severely diminished, and the psychological trauma of the war turned into hopelessness for the future.

SWIC Joins the effort
In 2015, Fr. Chris Bishop, a U.S.-based Episcopal priest, first went to Erbil to visit IDP centers in hopes of building working relationships and galvanizing the American Church. While there, he met Fr. Faiz Jerjees, the Chaplain of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Baghdad, part of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. A friendship and a partnership was born. With St. George’s as the financial conduit, and with the encouragement of the Rt. Rev. Michael Lewis, the Anglican Bishop in the region, SWIC began funding projects for IDPs. These included tablet computers for teachers, food for those just escaped from ISIS, and building caravan housing for those living in tents.

Fr. Faiz and Fr. Chris in Erbil, 2015
Fr. Faiz and Fr. Chris in Erbil, 2015

Then, in the fall and winter of 2017, ISIS was defeated militarily in the Nineveh Plains in the north and its fighters were forced from Iraq. That year the Iraqi Ministry of Culture honored Fr. Faiz as one of the country’s Distinguished Personalities of the Year for his role in supporting human rights and reconciliation work in the country. This work culminated in the expansion of The School of the Redeemer Kindergarten at St. George’s into a new 1-6 grade building, the only interfaith, multi-ethnic school in Baghdad, for which SWIC provided crucially needed funds in 2018.

Meanwhile, IDPs in the north were anxious to return to their homes in places like Qaraqosh (known as Bahkdadi to ethnic Assyrians), the largest Christian city in Iraq. However, the entire city was reduced to rubble by ISIS’s “scorched- earth” campaign. SWIC and Fr. Faiz recognized the immense need to provide water sources where infrastructure had been destroyed. So in 2016-18 SWIC funded 6 water wells that each provide water for 7-9 families, or up to 100 people, as well as water needed to reopen St. Afram’s elementary and high school. These wells provide water to all thirsty people, irrespective of anything. In its small way, even this represents a step towards tolerance and shared human space in community.

Community-rebuilding projects have become the main focus of activist groups in the region. In 2018 SWIC provided funding to rebuild a small family-owned grocery store in Qaraqosh/Bakhdadi. With one of SWIC’s Small Business Redevelopment Grants, this family continues rebuilding and plans to import food from Erbil to replenish the supplies (See Grocery Store video). The vision is to support local farmers with locally grown produce. When the market is profitable, it will not only feed local families returning home, it will be the seed of economic growth within local communities and serve as a model for other redevelopment enterprises.

Along with School of the Redeemer, the most ambitious, and successful project SWIC has participated in is the Chicken Farm Initiative in Qaraqosh/Bahkdadi (Link to Description of CFI Project). Reigniting the commercial engine of the Nineveh Plains, once the “Breadbasket” of Iraq, holds one of the keys to creating an environment where some of the thousands of Iraqi families, many of them from farming, that still sit idle in refugee camps in Jordan and other countries.

And, of course, another primary building block of sustainable progress is education. In the School of the Redeemer on St. George’s campus near the Green Zone in Baghdad, Father Faiz (now Canon Faiz) has created a model for the future of all of Iraq—a future where tolerance, diversity and a positive sense of national identity and pride can grow and a new Iraq can emerge with real hope for the future. In mid-2020 Fr. Faiz was honored by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she appointed him an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his services to the people of Iraq.

In 2020, SWIC has emerged as a crucial voice to spread awareness globally of the crisis affecting the Iraqi Christians. We have become the primary U.S. Episcopal NGO seeking sustainable ways of serving these communities and assuring all of our brothers and sisters in Iraq that they are not forgotten. Thus, SWIC is actively in partnership with and cultivating relationships with Western denominations and churches and other NGOs to help restore their lives.

SWIC is motivated partly by the understanding, gained from our Iraqi friends, that if this crisis if not addressed in the coming decade it well may mean the loss of these historic treasures in the heart of the body of Christ. On every level, religious, political, humanitarian, historical, and economic, the irretrievable loss of these communities would be an intolerable stain up-on our world. We have the chance, now, to help them.

Funding Sources: 2015-209

  • Donations - Individual
  • Donations - Corporate
  • Grants
  • Fund Raising

Our Impact: 2015-2019 Funded Projects

  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Water Wells
  • Displacement
  • Small Business Redevelopment

Expenses & Distribution: 2015-2019

  • Administration
  • Fund Raising & Promotion
  • Program Expenses
  • Program Distributions

SWIC with its partners is playing the long game in Iraq. The ideology that gave rise to Da’esh still exists despite their lack of visible presence, and it cannot be defeated with more violence and weapons. By financing projects that encourage diversity and ethnic unity, we are helping rebuild the social foundation of Iraq and helping to ensure the survival of the oldest Christian community in the world. We are helping those working toward peace and tolerance to inspire a sense of common purpose, national cohesion, self-acceptance, and the acceptance of others in a new Iraq. But we cannot do this alone.

We encourage all concerned and faithful communities in the West to not only provide financial support to the communities in Iraq but also help to spread awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims throughout the world.

Let them know that they are not forgotten.