UNTIL they fell victim to the Islamist advance across northern Iraq, few in the West knew much about the Yazidis, practitioners of an ancient, secretive religion which reveres the Peacock Angel as the chief among seven angels to whom God has entrusted the world. Their neighbours and fellow victims—the Iraqi Christians—perhaps ought to be better known, given that their religion is the most widely practised on earth. But plenty of people still make the mistake of assuming that they must be recent converts from Islam, although their communities predate Islam by at least three centuries. Whatever they know about history, people who follow the news will surely have heard that in both Syria and Iraq, Christians have suffered a disproportionate share of their countries’ woes. In Iraq, the pre-2003 Christian population may have been as high as 1.5m, or 5% of the population; it has probably fallen to under 400,000. Before Syria was engulfed by war, its Christian population was around 1.8m, or 10% of the total; at least 500,000 have been displaced.
Iraq and Syria’s Christians present a confusing picture. In the ancient “Street called Straight” running through Damascus, three prelates use the title of Patriarch of Antioch (and there are two more claimants in Lebanon). At least 14 denominations have a presence in Iraq. Some are in step with Rome, others with global Orthodox Christianity, others with neither. To understand the different sorts, you have to re-enter disputes which gripped Christendom in the fifth century, as subtle minds tried to find a way of saying that Jesus Christ was fully divine and fully human, but one person. For Catholics and most Orthodox Christians, the matter was settled in Chalcedon (now a suburb of Istanbul) in 451, where it was determined that Christ’s two natures co-existed “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”. But not everybody agreed. Before Chalcedon, a group known as Nestorians had broken away from the mainstream by stressing the contrast between the divine and human natures. And at Chalcedon a large dissident group made the opposite objection, arguing that the chosen formula understated the unity of Christ’s person.
In today’s Iraq, the biggest denomination is the Chaldean Catholics, a group with Nestorian roots which reconciled with Rome in 1672. The faction which rejected this reconciliation is the Assyrian Church of the East. In Syria, the biggest group is often known as the Greek Orthodox—in other words, Christians who accept Chalcedon and are in communion with the churches of Russia (with which they forged close ties in the 19th century), Greece and so on. Also significant are the Melkite Greek Catholics, who accept both Chalcedon and (as of the 1700s) the authority of Rome; and the Syrian Orthodox, who reject Chalcedon and insist on the single, divine nature of Christ. The main Armenian church, present in both Syria and Iraq, is similarly non-Chalcedonian, but some Armenians are Catholic or Protestant.
For people who are so close to Christianity’s early, passionate years, differences over theology are too important to dismiss. But they can be transcended by common suffering. In April last year, two bishops from Aleppo—one Greek Orthodox and the other Syrian Orthodox—were kidnapped, and nothing is known of their fate. For all anybody knows, they may be discussing the natures of Christ, but the debate is probably amicable.