In villages and monasteries in northern Iraq, and in churches in Baghdad, Irbil and Mosul, it is still possible to hear Assyrian Christians talking and praying in ancient Aramaic, said to be the language of Christ. Fewer in number now, the Assyrians are the direct descendants of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia. The Church of the East, currently presided over by Archbishop Gewargis Sliwa in Baghdad is the world’s oldest Christian church.
Before the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Christian population numbered some one and half million. By and large, Saddam’s Ba’athist government didn’t discriminate against the country’s minorities; indeed, Iraq’s veteran Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz was the most visible of the country’s Christians. Today, barely 400,000 remain, with church leaders claiming that organised ethnic cleansing is taking place, unchallenged. Iraq’s Christians have in the past been accused of collaborating with Britain and America, and while both Sunni and Shia political leaders say they want Iraq’s Christians to remain, some church leaders are urging their remaining flock to abandon Iraq before it is too late and they are massacred.