Book Review: Iraqi Christian Martyrs
Doves in Crimson Fields by Robert Ewa
Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, even in our times, ‘the Church does not lack martyrs’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 85). In many places things have got worse since then, and in Doves in Crimson Fields Robert Ewan gives us a detailed account of Christian martyrdom in Iraq from the very earliest times to the present. Crucially, he stresses the importance of past martyrs in contemporary spirituality.
Robert Ewan is a freelance writer who was born in Baghdad (where he lived until 1977) and who writes extensively about Iraq, especially in the Catholic press. He also edits Mesopotamia, a publication of the Chaldean mission in the UK. The Foreword is written by John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), who writes that ‘this book acts as a tribute to the timeless virtues of faith, hope and charity that are so firmly imprinted on the history of Iraq but which run the risk of being stamped out by forces that have contorted faith into a mantra of hatred, violence and hyper-extremism’. In the author’s own Introduction, he links the early Christian martyrs in Iraq with Jesus’ own Sacrifice and His prediction of what would be the price His followers would pay.
From prosperity to persecution
How exactly Christianity became established in Mesopotamia in apostolic times is not known with certainty, but the fact is it did. We know that people from Mesopotamia were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 5-9) and it seeks likely that they took the new faith home with them. Before giving an account of individual cases of martyrdom, Ewan gives a detailed account of the history of Christianity in Iraq with its truly bewildering changes of fortunes for the Faithful. The position in the first five centuries was constantly changing, between toleration (and even prosperity) to savage persecution (including probably the worst persecution in Christian history under the Persians beginning around 315 AD). These ups and downs continued through the various Caliphates and the Moguls up to the Ottomans and the disaster of the First World war genocide. The massacre of August 1918 involved several thousand Christian martyrs amid a bloodthirsty brutality which we have sadly seen again in our own day. Saddest of all is the account of the last fifteen years with its catalogue of brutal persecution, displacement and emigration. With the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraqis considered their Christian neighbours as collaborators of the invaders and acted accordingly. Before 2003 Christians in Iraq were estimated at almost one million; now barely 200,000 remain.
Link with the past
The main part of the book consists of accounts of specific cases of persecution from Iraqi history and is illustrated with no less than 33 cases of either individual or group martyrdom. A useful list of Sources and References is found at the end of the book. A large number of these martyrs figure importantly in the spiritual lives of contemporary Iraqi Christians and, in many cases, the account of the life and death of these martyrs concludes with mention of the date on which the Church celebrates their Feast today. This link with the past is powerful, as we ourselves in the Latin Church experience when we hear the lists of martyrs in the Roman Canon.
An ancient church
Before he begins his account of the individual cases of martyrdom, Ewan has a chapter on the importance of the Church in Koukhi. It would be interesting to know how many of us have even heard of the place, now an unappreciated and inaccessible archaeological site. But it was the first church built in Iraq, constructed during the second half of the first century and became the seat of the Patriarchy of the Church of the East, which it remained until the tenth century, when it moved to Baghdad (which had, by that time, become perhaps the biggest city in the world.) Throughout the book, Ewan never lets us forget how ancient the Church in Iraq is.
Cruelty and barbarity
Ewan is very good at setting the historical contexts for the individual cases of martyrdom. Unforgettable is the life and death of Patriarch Shamoun VIII Yohanna Sulaqa, who, in the sixteenth century, travelled to Rome to negotiate Uniate status for the Chaldean Church and was promptly killed by the opposing faction on his return. (Apparently the Holy See picked up his travel expenses). But it is the most recent episodes that are the most chilling. The most recent one described, carnage of almost unbelievable cruelty and barbarity, was the massacre in October 2010 of Sayidat al-Najat church. Events are described with courtroom precision, including the detailed accounts of eye-witnesses. But much persecution is simply unrecorded: the greatest loss of life was probably during the 9-month siege of Mosul (which had been home to Christians for 1,800 years), when Islamic State killed any civilians who tried to escape.
But numbers are low today, not just because of killings, but also displacement and emigration. It is true that some are demoralised, but there are grounds for hope. In northern Iraq 120,000 people fled for their lives when militants invaded the Nineveh Plains and the city of Mosul. Now, with the help of overseas aid, nearly 3,250 homes have been repaired and more than 8,000 families have resettled back. Speaking in Westminster Cathedral at this year’s Easter Vigil, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that the return of the Christian communities to the plains of Nineveh was a sign of Easter hope. They need the support of the whole Church in both prayer and aid.
For those with a particular interest in this area, a very useful recent addition is The Church in Iraq by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, currently Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and himself a former Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq.n, Gracewing, xiii + 213pp, £11.99 reviewed by Paul Marsden
Paul Marsden works to help the persecuted Church worldwide and is a Trustee of Aid to the Church in Need (UK).