Christmas in Iraq
A Brief History
The country now known as Iraq was once part of a region called Mesopotamia in ancient times. Mesopotamia means 'between two rivers' in Greek, as it lies between the Tigris and Euphrates. This area is known as the 'cradle of civilization.' The term is apt, as this region gave birth to some of the earliest and most advanced civilizations. In fact, in Genesis 2:14, the Tigris and Euphrates are mentioned as two of the four rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden. These rivers both flow from the mountains of Turkey, through Syria and Iraq. The 'cradle of civilization,' is also known as the 'fertile crescent,' as agriculture was developed here and the people in this region pioneered irrigation techniques, developed the wheel and glass.
One of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Sumerians, came from ancient Iraq. They are credited with creating one of the first written languages, called cuneiform. Cuneiform was made of wedge-shaped marks carved into clay. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a famous epic poem, was written in cuneiform. The Sumerians also built the city-state Ur, which is mentioned in the Bible as Abram's (Abraham) birthplace.
Code of Hammurabi
Iraq is also famous for the Code of Hammurabi. This code of law is not the first of its kind in the ancient world, as some have claimed. There are similar laws that pre-date Hammurabi's in the ancient world, including the Cuneiform Laws (circa 2350 B.C.), the Code of Urukagina (2380 B.C.), the Code of Ur-Nammu (2050 B.C.) and others. It was unique however, in that it presumed the innocence of the accused until proven guilty.
There have also been some suggestion that since the Code of Hammurabi predates the Mosaic Law, the Mosaic Law was plagiarized. However, it is not unusual even today for a civilized nation to have similar laws about murder, theft, adultery, etc., without it being plagiarized. The most important difference between the various codes of law of the ancient Middle East and the Mosaic Law is the former were civil and the latter was spiritual in intent. Whereas the Hammurabi Code and its predecessors were concerned with people getting along with each other, the Mosaic Law was ultimately meant to focus on people getting along with God. Also, the Mosaic Law, as a spiritual law, made provision for forgiveness.
After the Sumerians, the next great civilization to emerge in ancient Iraq was the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire rose and fell many times throughout history. It was to the Assyrian city of Nineveh that God sent Jonah to call the people to repentance. Nineveh was a huge city-- "it took three days to go through it." It is estimated that the population was more than 120,000 people. It was located near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Although they did repent --during the period when Jeroboam II ruled Israel (786-746 BC)-- the Assyrians were so wicked by the time of the rise of the Babylonian Empire, that God chose to destroy the empire from within and without. At the end of a bitter period of civil war, the city was sacked by a coalition of its former vassal states: the Babylonians, Medes, Chaldeans, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians.
After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, Babylon was the most powerful state in the ancient world. The ruins of the ancient city of Babylon lie about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. The name is thought to derive from the Akkadian word bav-il or bav-ilim, and means 'Gate of God' or 'Gate of the Gods.'
The name Babylon comes from Greek. It is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, but every mention of it is unfavorable. In Genesis 11 it is referenced in the story of the Tower of Babel. The Hebrew word bavel means confusion, which was the result of God causing the people to speak in different languages. Babylon is featured prominently in the books of Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and most notably Revelation. As a matter of fact, Babylon is mentioned 260 times in the Old Testament and 14 times in the New Testament.
Besides its biblical mentions, Babylon was famous for its Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a man-made terraced garden that was watered by machinery. It is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, recent discoveries by Dr. Stephanie Dalley indicate that the Hanging Gardens were in Nineveh, not Babylon, and that they were conceived and constructed at least 100 years earlier by Sennacherib, King of Assyria.
During King Nebuchadnezzar II's reign, Babylon became the largest and wealthiest city in the world. As he sought to expand his kingdom, he conquered Judea and and sacked Jerusalem. He destroyed Solomon's Temple, killed many thousands of Jews and carried at least 10,000 Jews into captivity in Babylon. In the Thursday, Week 2 devotional, some of the history of the deportation is discussed in the section "Infanticide Predicted." This period in Jewish history is known as the Babylonian Captivity.
The book of Daniel provides a first hand account of life in captivity in Babylon. Most of the book of Daniel is a chronicle of the experiences of Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Mesach), and Azariah (Abednego). Daniel and his friends even witness the fall of Babylon, when it is conquered by the Persians.
During the reign of the Persian king Cyrus the Great, the Jews were allowed to return to their land. Despite several rebellions, and attempts of Babylonian kings to attain independence, the Persians retained control and ruled the region for two centuries.
When the Macedonian Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331 BC, it ushered in the Hellenistic period in Babylon. After Alexander's death, his empire was divided among his generals. This led to infighting and Babylon eventually fell under the rule of the Parthian and Sassanid Empires (Persian Empires) for another nine centuries.
Christianity was brought to Iraq by Thomas and Thaddeus the Apostles during the 1st century. The Assyrians in northern Iraq were the first groups to accept Christianity. Babylon became the seat of the Church of the East. However, in the mid-7th century, Mesopotamia was invaded by the Muslim empire and Islamization began.
The Mongols invaded the region in 1258, but the Ottoman Turks eventually took control and ruled from 1638 until WWI. The British seized control of Iraq during the war and after several violent changes of government, it eventually became a republic. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq fought a long and costly war with its neighbor, Iran, but neither country was the clear victor.
Although there is a very small population of Christians in Iraq, the Iraqi government declared Christmas an official holiday in 2008. Most Iraqi Christians will begin their observance of Christmas with fasting. The fast will usually last from December 1st until Christmas Day. Papa Noel brings gifts for children in Iraq.
On Christmas Eve Christian families gather in the courtyard and the children read the story of the Nativity from an Arabic Bible while the rest of the family members hold lighted candles. When the children have finished reading the story, a pile of dried thorns is set on fire to create a bonfire. A psalm is sung until the thorns finish burning. When the thorns have finished burning, if it is reduced to ashes, this means the family will have good fortune in the coming year. Everyone takes turns jumping over the ashes three times and makes a wish.
On Christmas day, Christian families attend church. At this service a bonfire is lit at church, and the men in the congregation sing a hymn. There is a long service that includes the Bishop leading a procession while holding an image of the infant Jesus on a scarlet pillow. The service ends with the Bishop blessing the people and bestowing the 'Touch of Peace' upon them. This is initiated by the Bishop who touches a member of the congregation, who then touches a person next to him, who does the same until every person at church has received the Touch.
The Christmas meal varies by family, but usually includes common middle eastern dishes such as hummus, baba ganoush, mezze platters, roasted lamb. Most traditional is pacha. Pacha is made from the head, legs, tongue and other leftovers of a cow or sheep. This is placed together with rice in a stomach lining. These balls are eaten by the majority of Iraqi Christians for Christmas. No Iraqi Christmas celebration would be complete without kleicha, an Iraqi date filled cookie. Every Iraqi mom has her own 'secret' family recipe and shopping for the ingredients for it is an important part of the holiday preparations.
Iraqis bear the scars of decades of conflict involving violent dictators, international invasions, and attacks from divisive factions and insurgent groups. Divisions between religious and ethnic factions continue to fracture the nation, especially bad is the long-standing divisions between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds.
Oppression from the Islamic State has terrorized the country, threatening genocide for certain religious and ethnic groups. This has led to nearly three and a half million refugees being displaced in Iraq or in neighboring countries. Those displaced are living in refugee camps or in towns suffering economic hardship, inadequate medical care, psychological trauma, and uncertain futures. Violence and sabotage hinder the progress and growth of the shattered economy, leaving a fourth of Iraqis suffering in poverty. Children and mistreated women are particularly vulnerable. Rampant corruption, outdated infrastructure, and destabilizing terror attacks halt any hope of progress and development.
In early December of this year (2019), 400 protesters were killed leading to a show of solidarity by the Chaldean Church.* The church has been distributing food and praying with protestors. As a further show of support, the church has decided to refrain from holding public celebrations of Christmas-- trading tree decorations and holiday receptions for prayers of intercession.
Pray for evil and terror to be overcome by the power and love of Christ and His people.
Pray for the Gospel message to break through hearts hardened by long standing divisions and intense rivalries.
Pray for believers to courageously stand firm in their faith despite persecution and terror.
Pray for the Church as it seeks to be the hands and feet of Jesus amidst turmoil, suffering and despair
Pray against corruption in the government and for equal protection for all groups under the law and in actual practice
Pray for provision and restoration for refugees and those living in poverty