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Book Reviews

Iraq’s Christians: the History of a Tempered Faith

Fernando Filoni, I cristiani in Iraq. Storia, sviluppo e missione dagli inizi ai nostri giorni, LEV, Rome 2015

“Esteem is born of acquaintance and with esteem come friendship and affection.” This strong conviction (expressed by the author in the preface) is the guiding force behind the book, which presents the changing situation of the Christian communities in Mesopotamia during the course of their bimillenary history: from their birth, at the end of the first century/beginning of the second century, until the present day. Although the author focuses his attention on the Christians in Iraq, the geographical area relating to the history outlined is actually wider: indeed, it includes Persia, a part of Armenia and today’s south-eastern Turkey, as well as parts of modern-day Syria, particularly Jazirah i.e. that broad rural strip situated on the border between Syria, Iraq and Turkey and traditionally full of Christian villages. This “geographical” straying from modern Iraq’s political borders should not surprise the reader. Right at the outset, the author clarifies that, in actual fact, the Iraqi state lacks a unitary political, social and cultural tradition, being a political aggregate created by the European powers at the end of the First World War. Iraqi society comprises different tribes, religious communities and ethnic groups whose presence criss-crosses and transcends the borders of our modern states.

 

 

Even if it has its own specific features, the history of the Christians in Iraq cannot be written without taking account of the neighbouring context, in which Christian communities have lived within societies that have always been ethnically and religiously composite. The ecclesial subject itself, on the other hand, is plural: the Christians in the Mesopotamian area have been subdivided into many Churches (Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Armenian) and these still express the ancient church’s different theological and cultural sensitivities, albeit in reconciled tones.

 

 

The author has made a precise methodological choice, favouring a mainly political and institutional perspective in his writing. One of the volume’s great virtues is, precisely, that it retraces the history of the Christians in Iraq, systematically presenting their situation in the context of the political developments that necessarily influenced their fate; developments that are analysed organically and in a wealth of detail. The attention to the political dimension is integrated with a detailed and data-rich analysis of the missions carried out by the Roman Catholic Church in this area of the Middle East, particularly between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. Such analysis includes detailed references to the various Roman Catholic missionaries (belonging to great religious orders, including the Discalced Augustinians, the Carmelites, the Capuchins and the Dominicans) who were sent to the Mesopotamian area with the twofold intention of promoting Orthodox Christians’ communion with the Catholic Church and supporting those Christian communities, on an educational and cultural level above all. The complexity of the relations into which these missionaries characteristically entered emerges very clearly: their relationship with the pope, in the first place, but also their relations with the European states, especially France (which, during the period of the Capitulations, offered itself as “protector” of the Eastern Christians), and, naturally, their relations with the local political powers, which were always Muslim. What emerges is a painful history characterised from the seventh century onwards by Islamic political supremacy. This meant the beginning of a centuries-long period of discrimination and the legal pressurizing of Christians to convert to Islam and it often provoked situations of extensive economic and cultural poverty. Nevertheless, what also emerges is how such a painful history has tempered the Christian communities, rooting them in faith and testimony and making them capable, in actual fact, of surviving in the context of a historical journey in which the dramatic tones are the dominant ones. Dramatic tones that were intensified during the twentieth century and seem today, with the military success of ISIS (which has not been seriously impeded so far), to be prevailing once again, in a horrifying manner.

 

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