The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam. Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well. Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized. Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris). In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
This comment may strike many Americans as odd, because they presume that Iraq and the Middle East more generally are necessarily Muslim regions, and Christianity there must be a recent European importation. But that is far from the case. Since the study of Iraqi Christianity is an area of expertise, I thought I would present here a brief timeline of Mosul and its Christians.
In antiquity, whatever settlement or fortification existed on the site of the center of modern Mosul was overshadowed by Nineveh, the old Assyrian capital. It is unknown when Christianity first arrived in Nineveh, although it had an important bishop by 554, when its bishop was one of the signatories to a council of the Church of the East. At that time, the bishop was under the authority of the metropolitan archbishop of Arbela (modern Erbil) to the east of Nineveh, and the patriarchate was in the capital of the Sasanian Persian Empire, south of modern Baghdad. By the early seventh century, there were also Syriac Orthodox Christians in the region we know of as Iraq, with their regional headquarters in Tagrit (modern Tikrit), and an important monastery of Mor Matay outside Mosul. There was also an important monastery of the Church of the East outside Mosul, the monastery of Mar Gabriel and Mar Abraham, also called the “Upper Monastery,” which later became an important center for liturgical reform in the Church of the East.
After the early Muslim armies conquered Nineveh and Erbil, they made Mosul to the west of the Tigris into a politically important city, and soon the Church of the East diocese of Nineveh moved to Mosul. In the first century of Islamic rule, one of the bishops of the city was Isaac of Nineveh, sometimes known as Isaac the Syrian, a mystical writer originally from Beth Qatraye (the region around modern Qatar) who has the distinction of being regarded as a saint in almost every ancient branch of Christianity regardless of its theological affiliation. In the eighth century, after the new Abbasid dynasty founded the city of Baghdad, the patriarchate of the Church of the East moved into Baghdad to again be close to the center of government, and the bishop of Mosul became one of the most important Christian bishops in the region, attaining the status of a metropolitan archbishop in place of the earlier metropolitans of Arbela/Erbil. In the early Islamic period, the city of Mosul was most likely majority Christian, and the farmland surrounding the city was overwhelmingly Christian. The Muslim emirs who ruled the city did so as a dominant minority.
With the fragmentation of the Abbasid caliphate in the centuries following the Buyid conquest of Baghdad in 945, Mosul came under a series of local rulers, but was frequently an important base from which to rule al-Jazira (northern Mesopotamia). The Hamdanid family divided Mosul in northern Iraq and Aleppo in northern Syria among different cousins, followed by the ‘Uqaylid dynasty ruling al-Jazira from Mosul. Mosul then passed from one local lord to another, but in the early 12th C it became the base of operations from which Zengi, the first effective Muslim general to wage war against the Crusaders, unified much of al-Jazira and Syria under his rule and that of his sons. This might seem to be the end of significant Christianity in Mosul, yet Christians remained a very large portion of the population, and the Muslim rulers treated them accordingly. In this period the Syriac Orthodox headquarters in Iraq moved to the monastery of Mor Matay outside of Mosul. In 1161, the vizier Jamal al-Din of Mosul sent a Syriac Orthodox church leader, Maphrian Ignatius Lo’ozar, on a sensitive diplomatic mission to the king of Georgia (Barsoum, al-Lulu al-manthur, 380). Important Christian authors lived in Mosul in the early thirteenth century.
The submission of Mosul’s ruler Badr al-Din Lulu to the Mongols in 1258 spared the city, but his son attempted to remove the city from Mongol submission, and as part of that process ordered the Christians to convert to Islam. Hulegu, a grandson of Genghis Khan and the Mongol ruler of Iraq and Iran, did not look kindly on this defection and retook the city by force within a year. Among the civilian governors of the city subsequently appointed by the Mongols in the latter half of the thirteenth century, several of them were in fact Christians (either from the Church of the East or Armenians). This is probable evidence for the continued importance of the Christian population of the city.
In the chaos surrounding the dissolution of the Mongol Ilkhanate in the mid-14th C, the catholicos-patriarch of the Church of the East moved to the Mosul plain, which became the center of Iraqi Christianity for the next five hundred years. Mosul itself was ruled by the Jalayirids from Baghdad, and then the Qaraqoyunlu from the Lake Van area and Tabriz, and subsequently the Aqqoyunlu from Amid. In the second half of the fifteenth-century, the patriarchate of the Church of the East moved into Mosul itself, which was a frequent patriarchal residence until the twentieth century.
From the sixteenth century to the early twentieth, the city was ruled by the Ottoman rulers in Constantinople/Istanbul (contrary to popular American music, the dynasty usually preferred the former term) and repeatedly threatened by the rulers of Persia. The Muslim and Christian inhabitants of Mosul jointly repelled a 1743 siege by Nadir-Shah Tahmasp of Persia, after which the Christians were allowed to rebuild some of their churches which had been destroyed (account ed. by Pognon). Some portions of Syriac Christians, both of the Church of the East and then of the Syriac Orthodox Church, joined the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and Mosul became a center for Roman Catholic missionary activity in the Middle East. Many Christians from Mosul were trained or spent whole careers in Rome, such as the eighteenth-century priest Khidr of Mosul. A priest named Eliya from Mosul wrote the first Arabic account of the Americas, on the basis of his voyage there in the late 1600s. In Mosul in the mid-19th C, the Dominicans founded the first long-term printing press in Iraq, and it published both Arabic and Syriac texts into the early 20th C. The Dominican Seminary of St. John in Mosul continued to provide high school and clerical training from its foundation in 1878 until 1973, when it was closed by the Ba’ath government of Iraq.
Until this past weekend, Mosul always had a substantial Christian population. Political instability always disproportionately harms minorities, and since 2003 the Christian population of Mosul was regarded as easy targets for militias. Many Christians in Mosul retreated into more secure compounds, or left Mosul entirely for more stable lives in Iraqi Kurdistan or overseas in Toronto. Though they have played a large role in making Mosul the city that it is, from pre-Islamic times to the past century, the new rulers of Mosul are only interested in using it as a base for global jihad. We may hope their rule of the city, like that of Badr al-Din Lulu’s son in 1260, will be brief, and the city can be rebuilt and reintegrated as a cosmopolitan center.