July 3rd is the Feast Day of the Apostle Thomas, a very significant figure to the Christians of the Nineveh Plain. His journey across the Middle East led him to evangelize communities in Northern India. Founding churches across his route, he went through the areas now called Iran and Iraq. His finger bones were discovered at the Church of St. Thomas in Mosul, during renovation work in 1964. Indeed, the history of Christianity in Iraq spans two millennia, with some of the oldest Churches on the planet, dating back to the life and ministry of a man who knew Jesus in the flesh.
Thomas the Apostle, also known as Didymus (“twin”), was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament. Thomas is commonly known as “Doubting Thomas” because he initially doubted the resurrection of Jesus Christ when he was told of it (as is related in the Gospel of John); he later confessed his faith (“My Lord and my God”) on seeing the wounds left over from the crucifixion.
According to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle traveled across the Middle East in the 1st Century AD, speaking in the language of Jesus, as he would have as a man from the region in which Jesus lived. We remember back to John 20:29, in which “doubting Thomas,” placed his hands in the scars of the resurrected Jesus for proof that it was really him:
“Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
The one who saw and believed, carried the Gospel to a people who had not seen Christ in the flesh, and yet still believed.
He made it to Northern Iraq, into the historical kingdom known as Mesopotamia – the descendants of the ancient city of Nineveh, who collectively repented at the preaching of the Prophet Jonah hundreds of years prior. Their hearts were ready to embrace the gospel, and they were among the first people outside of 1st Century Judea to do so.
Traditionally, Assyrian Christians see themselves as belonging to the people that once ruled one of the greatest empires of the Middle East, which repented at the preaching of Jonah. According to this tradition, the Assyrians survived under the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, as well as in small kingdoms of their own like Osrhoene in northern Mesopotamia.
The Lord’s heart has always been for the people of the Nineveh Plain, as it is for all peoples in the world, that they may know Him. But even in this, the people of the Nineveh Plain have the distinction of having descended from a people mentioned in the Old Testament.
In the book of Jonah, the Lord had great compassion for the people of the city, despite being Gentiles prior to the establishment of the New Covenant. He loved these people and wanted to show them mercy, and sent Jonah to minister to them.
And when Jonah showed partiality and became angry that the Lord would save them; the Lord offered him a lesson about His compassion and desire for all to know Him:
Jonah 4:11: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Woven into the fabric of biblical history, is a beautiful and surprising narrative about Nineveh – a people called to worship their Creator, even prior to the time of Christ. God always had them in His plan, as history unfolded around them, as He has plans for all of us.
As Jesus tells us in John 15, all in Him are branches of His vine:
John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
The acceptance of Christ by the people of the Nineveh Plain is a beautiful illustration of God’s plan to bring all tribes and nations unto Him. The people of the Nineveh Plain – the Assyrians – were among the first Gentiles to ever come to Christ.
Assyrians therefore consider themselves to be the first Gentile Christian nation. Indeed, Iraqi Christians represent the oldest continuous body of Christians in the world, and have a spiritual and physical lineage that spans back to the first Christians, who were considered the “wild branches,” grafted onto God’s plan, adopted into His family; a radical inclusionary concept to the people of their day.
Romans 11:24: “For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
They have been called variously (and in different historical times) Assyrian Christians, Nasranis and also Chaldeans, and are still practicing their faith after 2,000 years. The Christians of Iraq, both Orthodox and Catholic – have a very long and rich history, but hundreds of thousands of them have fled war and persecution in their homeland, even into the present day. Over 100,000 families in Northern Iraq and Kurdistan were forced to flee their homes during the 2014 ISIS insurgency.
Life is not easy for Iraqi Christians, but we can all learn lessons of resiliency from their persistent faith. As adversity grows, programs are needed to protect the refugees that emerge from persecution of Christians and other religious minority groups across Iraq and the Middle East. American FRRME is committed to long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Donations to American FRRME go to programs that will aid in the survival of families facing violence across the Middle East.