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World News

Factbox: Iraq's Christian denominations

(This March 1 story has been corrected to fix province in paragraph three, amend Chaldean, Assyrian sections)

FILE PHOTO: A mural of Pope Francis is seen on the wall of a church upon his upcoming visit to Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq February 22, 2021. REUTERS/Teba Sadiq/File Photo

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Pope Francis visits Iraq on a historic four-day trip beginning March 5. He will preach inter-faith coexistence and try to boost Christians who over centuries of conflict have fled Iraq and the wider Middle East in droves.

Iraq is overwhelmingly Muslim but hosts several ancient Christian communities, who now number an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people from the 1.5 million who lived in the country before the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There are 14 officially recognised Christian sects in Iraq. Most live in Baghdad, the plains of northern Nineveh province and Iraq’s self-run Kurdistan region.

These are the most prominent Christian denominations in Iraq:

CHALDEANS

Chaldeans are the most numerous of Iraq’s Christians, up to 80% of the group. The Chaldean Church is Eastern Rite affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church but allowed to keep its traditions and rituals.

It originated from the Church of the East in Mesopotamia, which emerged in the early centuries after Jesus Christ.

The church is based in Baghdad and headed by Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako. Most Chaldeans live in Iraq, the United States, Iran and Lebanon. They speak a version of Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken at the time of Jesus. There are 110 Chaldean churches across Iraq.

SYRIACS

Syriacs make up about 10% of Iraqi Christians. They include Catholics, which are the majority, and Orthodox. The northern towns of Qaraqosh, Bashiqa and Bartella house the biggest Syriac community in the country.

The main Syriac Catholic church is based in Lebanon while the Orthodox church is based in Syria. There are 82 Syriac churches in Iraq, both Catholic and Orthodox.

ASSYRIANS

Assyrians mainly following the Assyrian Church of the East comprise up to around 5% of Christians in Iraq. Some fled to Iraq following the massacres by the Ottoman army during World War One.

Assyrians refer to the killing of their people in 1915 as a genocide, which took place around the same time as the massacre of Armenians. There are 21 Assyrian churches in Iraq, 17 of them in Baghdad.

Ethnic Assyrians, a larger group that includes members of other Christian churches in the region, are originally from areas of former Mesopotamia including Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

ARMENIANS

About 3% of Iraqi Christians are Armenian. After the Armenian genocide in 1915-1923 by the Ottoman Empire, many of them fled to Iraq. They speak Armenian. There are 19 Armenian churches in Iraq, both Orthodox and Catholic.

ARABS, SMALLER GROUPS

Arab Christians make up about 2% of the Iraqi Christian population.

There are also three Greek Orthodox and four Coptic Orthodox churches in Baghdad and 57 Roman Catholic churches across the country, as well as a small number of Protestants.

Sources: The Iraqi Christian Foundation; Freedom of Belief for Minorities in Iraq, by Saad Salloum, an academic specialised in Iraqi minorities and founder of the Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity; Reuters interview with Salloum; Iraq 2019 International Religious Freedom Report, U.S. State Department.

Reporting by Amina Ismail, editing by John Davison and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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