Country Profile: Iraq
Updated February 2016
Population: 37 million
Government: Parliamentary democracy
Religion: Muslim 99% (there are roughly two Shia Muslims for every Sunni); Christian and Other 1%
Straddling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, modern-day Iraq occupies the land of historic Mesopotamia.
In ancient times Iraq was considered the cradle of civilisation. By the Middle Ages, it had become the centre of the Islamic empire, but saw its power fade after the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century. Iraq was a British colony until 1932.
In 1958, the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown and the country became a focus for Arab nationalism under the control of the Baath Party.
Vast oil reserves should have made the country rich. But an eight-year war with Iran followed by the first Gulf War had a devastating effect on the economy and society.
Iraq has played a central role in the Jewish and Christian faiths. The patriarch Abraham was from the city of Ur, while Christianity was brought to the country by the apostle Thomas. Around one in eight Iraqis was a Christian after the Second World War.
The US-led invasion of the country in 2003 unfolded into a brutal conflict between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority, which reached a peak in 2006-2007.
Both the unity Government and coalition forces struggled to maintain control as violence escalated.
The last US combat troops withdrew in December 2011 and violence and unrest flared again in the summer of 2014.
Sunni Muslim Islamic State insurgents began to mobilise across central and northern Iraq, pursuing their aim of creating a transnational Caliphate. They succeeded in routing the largely Shia government army.
Christians were given the stark choice: submit to their brutal rule, convert to Islam, or die. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of all faiths were forced to flee their homes as the insurgents pushed forward, threatening the unity of the state.
Iraq remains extremely volatile, and hostility and suspicion between Shia and Sunni continues.
Under Saddam Hussein, evangelical Christians were persecuted by the secret police. Later, Christians became a target for Islamist militant groups.
In late-2008, thousands of Christians fled Mosul after a series of killings and attacks on their community in September and October.
Kirkuk in northern Iraq was another flashpoint for anti-Christian violence, particularly in 2009 when several Christians were murdered.
In October 2010, more than 50 people were killed during an extremist attack on the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad.
Many Christians fled Baghdad. Some settled in the largely Christian Nineveh plains, only to be driven out again by Islamic State militia.
There was a further major exodus when Iraq’s second city, Mosul, was taken over by Islamic State in June 2014. Nineveh, the historic homeland of Iraq’s Christian community, and in particular Mosul, have been largely deserted by Christians fleeing IS.
The vast majority of Christians displaced by violence within Iraq in recent years fled to the north. Some found shelter in the Kurdistan Region, which enjoys a high degree of autonomy. Many other Christians have emigrated.
The decline of Christianity has been marked. There were more than 1 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. That number had dwindled to 200,000 by late-2014, according to some estimates. Some observers say Christianity is heading for extinction in Iraq.
While the Government has publicly condemned violence against minority groups such as Christians, it has continued to fall short in bringing culprits to justice and offering proper protection for religious minorities. The climate of lawlessness and insurgency impose severe limits on the government’s effectiveness.
Muslim converts to Christianity face acute persecution. Even outside extremist-dominated areas, Christians face abduction and attack.
Iraq is on the Watch List of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. This is a list of countries where religious freedom is considered to be violated.
Current projects include:
- Support of initiatives by St George’s Church Baghdad
Sources: BBC; CNN; International Christian Concern; Operation World; Release International; The Economist; The World Factbook 2016; UNHCR; US Commission on International Religious Freedom
Updated February 2016