In 2008, the Iraqi government declared the day of Christmas, Dec. 25, a public holiday. Despite being one of the few Muslim-majority states to acknowledge Christmas, the decision was, in many ways, overdue. Iraq is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, one that played a key role in shaping the country’s rich diversity and endured some of the most gruesome persecution at the hands of various rulers and actors.
For the population of Nineveh province, including my hometown of Mosul, Christmas always felt like a holiday. There were never any school exams that day, and often there were one or two free classes as our Christian classmates and teachers were absent. What brings delight to a student’s heart more than a stress-free day at school? Mosul’s many churches, averaging one in every four neighborhoods, were decorated with lights. The festive feel was in the air, albeit subtly.
Christianity first arrived in Iraq through Nineveh, then the capital of Assyria, in the first century. The apostle Thomas and his disciples made their journey east, crossing to Mesopotamia from the Levant. The Aramaic-speaking people of Nineveh converted gradually and coexisted with the old religion of Assyrians and Zoroastrians until Christianity dominated Assyria as a whole. This mass conversion was key in preserving the ethnic identity of Iraq’s Assyrian population, who claim to be descendants of ancient Assyria. The seclusion of the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq played a part in preserving the ethnic, religious and linguistic distinction of the Assyrians from other groups in Iraq but did not spare them frequent raids and attacks by followers of the new religion, Islam, in the eighth century. The military campaigns in the Nineveh Plains aimed to subjugate the followers of Christianity or to accept Islam. From the Abbasid rule to the Seljuks and Ottomans, the attacks continued well into the 20th century, with the Simele massacre in 1933 being the last organized campaign.
The reason that Iraq’s Christians have endured is multilayered. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Nineveh with roots in the land dating well beyond 6,000 years. They would become one of the oldest Christian communities that survived varying but consistent persecution over centuries, thus strengthening the amalgam of indigenous identity and devotion to a church their communities spearheaded in the Middle East. Their attachment to the land is authentic, and no campaign has successfully uprooted Assyrians from Nineveh. Christmas celebrations reflect this and often include the historic Assyrian circle dancing, proudly displaying the unique ethnic attire. The crosses added to scarfs and hats reflect the merging of blood (ethnicity) and faith. [Continue reading…]