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Saturday, 26 July 2014

Christians pulled up by the roots - Christopher Howse, Telegraph

By Christopher Howse, 25 Jul 2014

The persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria share a history of holiness and literary and theological culture of which the West is largely ignorant
There is something chilling about a black flag, even if it does bear the words from the shahada: “There is no god but God.” In Mosul, northern Iraq, the black flag of Isis flies where once stood a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The last Christians were reported to have left the city this week, following a declaration by Isis, which now calls itself the Islamic State, that they must all choose submission to Islam, the sword, or payment of the jizya, a tax formerly paid by Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule. The choice seemed unrealistic, the tax being set too high to be affordable.

The Arabic letter nun for “Nasrani” was painted on Christian houses. Crosses were removed from the outside of churches. Perhaps 1,500 Christian families fled, robbed of their possessions. It is part of a more terrible toll of murderous violence in Iraq and Syria, but it is also, for Christianity in this region, if Isis has its way, the end of a history that goes back to the beginnings.

A detail in the cultural eradication of Christianity in northern Iraq was the expulsion of the monks from the monastery of Mar Behnam (St Behnam), 15 miles away. The monks were not allowed to take with them their holy relics. Isis does not like relics, and is reported to have smashed up the reputed grave of the prophet Jonah, and even that of Seth, the son of Adam.

By comparison the shrine of Mar Behnam is modern. He and his sister Sara are believed to have lived in the middle of the fourth century AD. At that time the region was in contention between the Roman Empire under Julian the Apostate and the Sasanian Empire under Shapur II. To the north were the Armenians, who had become Christian, to the south the Arabs, who had not yet dreamt of Islam.

Mar Behnam’s father was a king, Assyrian by nation, Zoroastrian by religion. His name is given as Sennacherib. When Behnam and his sister became Christians he was angry and they were killed. Later the king was himself converted by Mar Mattai (Matthew), the monk who had converted his son. The nearby monastery of Mar Mattai also survives from those times.

Christianity in northern Iraq comes in puzzling varieties, but these are the surviving islets of a strong, populous and cultured Church that throve in the first millennium of Christianity.

The monastery of Mar Behnam that Isis has closed down was run by Syriac Catholics. They are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and come under the Patriarch of Antioch. The language of their worship derives from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. The monastery of Mar Mattai, by historical fortune, is, or was, run by Syriac Orthodox, with the same ethnic roots, but with their own Patriarch of Antioch, and they are not in communion with Rome.

These Christians share a history of holiness and literary and theological culture of which the West is largely ignorant. This week they issued a joint appeal to the world for help.

Iraq has also been the cradle of East Syrian churches: the Chaldean Church in communion with Rome, and the Assyrian Church of the East, which is not. The Church of the East was reputed to hold heretical Nestorian beliefs, but in practice they could hardly have done so, and an agreed statement on belief in Christ was reached with the Chaldeans in 1994. Both these churches of Iraq, which in 1990 numbered a million, follow a marvellously ancient liturgy bearing the name of saints Addai and Mari.

Just as ecologists prize biodiversity, so Christians should prize liturgical and cultural diversity of this kind. It retains something from which Western Christians should profit. In 2007 I reported here a plan to set up a “safe” Christian enclave on the plain of Nineveh round Mosul. Events show how foolish that was. But can the remaining Christians of the region survive there?

Source: Christians pulled up by the roots - Telegraph

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