Fernando Cardinal FILONI. The Church in Iraq. Translated by Edward Condon. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, ©2017, pp. x + 195, $12.97 pb. ISBN 9780813229652. Reviewed by Linda M. MALONEY, Enosburg Falls, VT 05450.


Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and former Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq and Jordan, is well qualified to write on the history and present state of the church(es) in Iraq. Edward Condon has provided a solid translation from the Italian original, though his copyeditor has let him down in many places, alas. The chapter titles say a great deal about the book’s angle of vision: “Introduction: The Geopolitical Context,” “1. The Ancient Christian Community,” and “2. The Church of the East: The Arab (651–1258), Mongol (1258–1410), and Turkish (1410–1508) Ages” occupy thirty-eight pages. Then “3. The Latin Church in Mesopotamia: The Safavid Dynasty and the Ottoman Era,” “4. The Twentieth Century: Demographic and Geographic Upheaval and the Birth of Iraq,” and “5. The Holy See and Iraq” make up the remaining 146 pages of text. There is a bibliography and an index.

The focus is almost entirely on the modern, post-Trent period and the perspective is that of Rome. The “church” (i.e., the hierarchy of the [for the most part Roman] Catholic Church) is in dialogue with, in conflict with, in negotiations with various governments and other churches, mainly Chaldean and Assyrian. The chronicle of missionary work by religious orders (mainly Carmelite, Dominican, Capuchin, and Jesuit) is impressive, if confusing; the tale of Rome’s futile efforts to establish contact and control through European vicars, nuncios, apostolic delegates, and bishops is both confusing and depressing. It seems that most of the men appointed by Rome to oversee the Latin church in Mesopotamia in the 16th-18th centuries never left Europe. Over long periods Rome’s chosen representative also served as the emissary of the French government. The upheavals of the twentieth century, and even more so those of the first decades of the twenty-first, are better recorded but even more devastating, leaving the author to conclude that “Iraq has become an unlivable country” (p. 177). The continuing exodus of thousands of Iraqi Christians, together with periodic repression by both governmental and rebel bodies, has reduced Christianity in Iraq to an even tinier minority than in the past. It is significant that, while the Chaldean Church remains centered in Baghdad, the Assyrian Church of the East has its headquarters in Chicago.

Nothing is ever said about the Orthodox churches in the region (if any?—there is no index entry for “Orthodox” or “Orthodoxy”), which leaves the picture incomplete. The book cries out for a timeline and a chart tracing the lineage of the various church bodies, because the reader quickly gets lost in a sea of unfamiliar names and places. The last chapter contains an admirable short summary of the origins of the Sunni/Shi’a split; something similar for the complicated developments within Christianity (including Nestorians and Orthodox) is highly desirable.

This book is a very valuable resource, or rather a starting point, for the history of the church(es) in Iraq as they relate to the Western church. It is anything but light reading, but future historians who bring their spelunking tools to the job will find it a mine of information.