The origins of Christianity in Iraq go back to the apostolic age (CE 33-100), preceding the introduction of Christianity to Britain. It has continually been a significant cultural and religious force in Iraq and in the Kurdistan Region until today. For most of this time Christians and Muslims lived together in mutual respect and harmony.
In London a hub, Gulan, has grown representing the cultural and communal interests of the diaspora.
We asked the group who celebrate Kurdish culture, some questions ahead of their recent event Christians Of Kurdistan. Sarah Panizzo, Gulan trustee organised the event at Royal Geographical Society, London.
Who is your event aimed at and what is the goal? Gulan’s goal is to bring understanding of Kurdistan to as wide an audience as possible. This is the fifth in a series of events celebrating particular religious groups – following Yezidi, Faylee, Kaka’i and Jews. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is one of the only places in the Middle East where these minority groups live side by side in relative harmony. We want to celebrate this diversity.
What’s the brief history of the Dominicans in Kurdistan? Our event is about all the different Christian communities, not just the Dominicans. It’s fascinating how many different churches there are. Christianity has been present in Iraq since the Apostolic age, and there are organised churches by the end of 100 A.D. We have images at our exhibition of monasteries still used today that date back to 200 A.D. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has attracted Christians from the rest of Iraq and recently from Syria. In the early 1900s Armenians and other Christian communities came to the region as refugees from the genocide in Turkey.
How do they relate to the rest of Kurdistan as a community? There is largely peaceful coexistence and pockets of Christian communities are found throughout the Kurdistan region. They participate in local politics and there are many parties representing Christian groups. It is an important part of the KRG that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq should be tolerant.
What distinct aspects of culture have they developed? Gulan’s earliest focus has been on the costumes in the Kurdistan region. The varieties you get are wonderful. The Christian ones are particularly colourful and distinctive. They are hand-made and embroidered with natural dies. Once worn every day, they are now reserved for special occasions. Because they are disappearing, Gulan aims to documents and develop an online collection of traditional costume and jewellery. Anybody with wonderful examples should get in touch.
The huge variety of Christian costumes have Christian symbols like crucifixes enmeshed within the patterns. We are happy to show photographs of these and actual examples of these at our event.
The languages of the region are also fascinating. Typically, people speak Syriac, Arabic and Kurdish. The Syriac communities are very keen on their written traditions. They have a very rich tradition of manuscripts, which are now being preserved and digitised by people like Fr. Najeeb Michaeel and Dr. Saadi. In contrast, because the Kurdish language was suppressed in many parts, particularly Turkey, there is very little written work from the Kurdish people. Recently there have been Kurdish novels, and more and more poetry – which stems from an oral and nomadic tradition.
As for music, the Christian tradition and the Assyrian church services have a lot of hymns, which are still sung today. They are very atmospheric. We’ve invited the Deaconness Rayia Mato to sing at our event, who previously sang Syriac hymns at Lambeth Palace, London.
How easy is it to manage their public image, with events like this, considering the history of Christian missionaries is mostly not a good one?
Although Gulan first answered this question, they then retracted their response, which was a shame. Basically they see it as an organic presence and not an import which is fair enough. Find out more on their website.