In 2008, the Iraqi government declared the day of Christmas, Dec. 25, a public holiday. Despite being one of the few Muslim-majority states to acknowledge Christmas, the decision was, in many ways, overdue. Iraq is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, one that played a key role in shaping the country’s rich diversity and endured some of the most gruesome persecution at the hands of various rulers and actors.
For the population of Nineveh province, including my hometown of Mosul, Christmas always felt like a holiday. There were never any school exams that day, and often there were one or two free classes as our Christian classmates and teachers were absent. What brings delight to a student’s heart more than a stress-free day at school? Mosul’s many churches, averaging one in every four neighborhoods, were decorated with lights. The festive feel was in the air, albeit subtly.
Christianity first arrived in Iraq through Nineveh, then the capital of Assyria, in the first century. The apostle Thomas and his disciples made their journey east, crossing to Mesopotamia from the Levant. The Aramaic-speaking people of Nineveh converted gradually and coexisted with the old religion of Assyrians and Zoroastrians until Christianity dominated Assyria as a whole. This mass conversion was key in preserving the ethnic identity of Iraq’s Assyrian population, who claim to be descendants of ancient Assyria. The seclusion of the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq played a part in preserving the ethnic, religious and linguistic distinction of the Assyrians from other groups in Iraq but did not spare them frequent raids and attacks by followers of the new religion, Islam, in the eighth century. The military campaigns in the Nineveh Plains aimed to subjugate the followers of Christianity or to accept Islam. From the Abbasid rule to the Seljuks and Ottomans, the attacks continued well into the 20th century, with the Simele massacre in 1933 being the last organized campaign.
The reason that Iraq’s Christians have endured is multilayered. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Nineveh with roots in the land dating well beyond 6,000 years. They would become one of the oldest Christian communities that survived varying but consistent persecution over centuries, thus strengthening the amalgam of indigenous identity and devotion to a church their communities spearheaded in the Middle East. Their attachment to the land is authentic, and no campaign has successfully uprooted Assyrians from Nineveh. Christmas celebrations reflect this and often include the historic Assyrian circle dancing, proudly displaying the unique ethnic attire. The crosses added to scarfs and hats reflect the merging of blood (ethnicity) and faith.
During the brief, nominally secular period in contemporary Iraq from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, the Nineveh Plains were mostly left in peace. In Mosul, Arab Christians adopted some of the local customs and behaviors, but this did not erode their status as an indigenous minority. Some of these behaviors, however, created friction among Nineveh’s Christians. Mosul, the urban city comprising the west and east banks of the Tigris, has long held a classist view of Nineveh’s rural folk as outsiders, contributing little to modernity and an urban lifestyle. This outlook fostered an inhospitable and sometimes toxic urban-rural divide in Nineveh. The Christian population was no exception. Mosul’s Christians often kept to themselves and restricted contact with Christians from the Nineveh Plains. They were friendly toward one another but scarcely mingled. Cross-marriage between the two was rare, and in the few instances it occurred, it met with discontent and judgment.
Christmas too was celebrated differently. In Mosul, family gatherings with large buffet lunches and dinners with friends were common. In the evenings, hotels and bars hosted popular musicians for small venue music shows on Christmas Day. In rural Nineveh, celebrations were louder and lasted for days. In addition to the family gatherings, large venues were booked weeks in advance and transformed into all-Assyrian dance halls. The celebrations were more eccentric, more camp-ish and arguably more entertaining.
During the 1980s until the mid-1990s, Christmas could be felt across Iraq. State-controlled television was full of Christmas themed movies and music, both international and local. However, the public display of Christmas affection came to halt in 1994 with the initiation of the Faith Campaign, the Baathist attempt to introduce Islam to all sectors of life in Iraq. Social conservatism was one of many ways to impose the new face of Iraqi society and that entailed removing all expressions of Christmas. Bars were fully banned and music shows were restricted in Mosul, and holiday festivities were gradually confined to greeting family and friends. Not in rural Nineveh, though. Alcohol production and consumption continued, as well as the weeklong Christmas partying.
The migration of Christian Iraqis to the West during the economic sanctions began in small numbers. Unlike the earlier waves, economic hardship, not persecution, was the key driver behind seeking a better life wherever there was an opportunity. Christmas gatherings became bittersweet as families grew smaller, a trend that continued and increased after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
As extremists sought to destabilize the new order in the country, Christians were among the first victims. In Mosul, all visible and tangible evidence of Christmas disappeared from public life with the Christian population itself remaining low key. Women covered their hair to be indistinguishable from their Muslim counterparts. Families relocated to the Kurdistan region where it was safe and tolerant. Rural Nineveh faced its own struggles. Between the Kurdish Democratic Party’s land grab, ongoing extremist incursions and attacks, and an increasingly restrictive Iraqi security apparatus, many Christians, especially the younger generations, made the heartbreaking decision to leave home behind.
Centuries of persecution failed to erase the historic villages of early Christianity in Iraq, but the looming threat of extremism came close. In June 2014, Mosul fell to the Islamic State group. Less than one month later, Christians faced four choices: convert to Islam and maintain assets; remain Christian but pay a monthly religious tax known as jizya; leave without any assets, identification or documents; or execution. Few opted to pay the jizya and stay, but most left their ancestral homes. In rural Nineveh, Baghdeda was the first village to fall to the Islamic State, followed by Bartella and Tel Keppe. Alqosh was spared, most likely because of its proximity to the Kurdish region where U.S. and coalition forces halted the Islamic State’s progression. Homes were completely looted, churches were sacked, the artifacts and manuscripts that dated back millennia were either destroyed or sold on the black market.
Following the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, thousands of Christian Iraqis who took temporary refuge in the Kurdish region or in the camps for the internally displaced have returned to the villages on Nineveh Plains. Many returned to destroyed homes and churches but rebuilt what they could with the help of international aid organizations and Christian relief funds. The Iraqi government contributed minimally.
That same year, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations were spectacular. Not only did the familiar parties return in Baghdeda and Alqosh, but also a massive Christmas tree was erected in the center of Mosul after more than 20 years. Today, families pose for pictures with men in Santa suits. The sight of a Christmas tree or a decorated home is common and anticipated. The returnees still face a plethora of security and political obstacles. The Kurdish land grab continues in addition to a deliberate ethnic reengineering in areas like Bartella where the families of hundreds of Shiite Muslim fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella of mostly Shiite militias, have relocated from their original homes in southern Iraq. The demographic change sparked a debate about the freedom to live anywhere in Iraq, but a resolution has yet to be reached. Nonetheless, Christmas celebrations in Nineveh are a reminder of the hardships and sacrifices Christians have endured for nearly 2,000 years, as well as proof that Assyria lives on.