Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Mirella GALLETTI


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Kurdistan and Its Christians

By Mirella GALLETTI (*)


My approach with the Christians of Kurdistan goes through all my researches on the Kurds, both in the archives and in the field-work.

Since I was a student my main interests were toward the Kurds and Kurdistan. But whenever I met the Kurds I found that also the Christians manifested a specificity. In particular I remember that during a visit to Kirkuk in 1974 the middle-aged translator told me he was Christian and that in the town the majority were Kurds, even if Saddam Huseyn’s policy was to diminish their presence.

In 1988 in the refugee camp of Yüksekova in Turkey I met a Christian. With his family he had escaped from Saddam's chemical weapons. He was determined to emigrate to the United States: “For us there is no future in Iraq”. Hence I could materialize the difference between a Christian and a Kurdish refugee. The former looks for a final refuge. The latter is determined to come back to his homeland when difficulties are over.

The Kurds are numerous. A regime can massacre many Kurds but cannot succeed in exterminating the whole population. The Christians are few and silenced. Their hope of survival is tied to their emigration to the West. A choice without return.

My interest toward the Christians was also nurtured by the fact that in those decades, Seventies and Eighties, I collaborated with Catholic magazines that were among the few to publish information on the Kurdish problem. In those years the Italian left wing usually considered Saddam Huseyn an ally of the Soviet Union. The conservatives made money with the Iraqi oil, so both were silent in front of the massacres and Anfal period.

In the Seventies I started my researches on the Italian literature on Kurds and Kurdistan from the 13th to the 19th century. A basic chapter concerned the presence of the Dominican missionaries in Kurdistan.  So I spent many days in the Dominican archives in Rome. 

As Mosul was inhabited by a relevant number of Christian communities (Armenians, Jacobites, Nestorians, and others), some preaching friars used to go to Mosul to bring them back to the Catholic Church. So in the middle of the 18th century a Dominican mission was established in Mosul and made a major contribution to the knowledge of Kurdistan and its different people because the missionaries who had settled there became acquainted with the local society through daily contacts with the population, and wrote works of great value.[1] 

         Domenico Lanza (1718-1782),[2] Maurizio Garzoni (1734-1804) and Giuseppe Campanile (1762-1835) were based in Mosul and they greatly contributed to the knowledge of this region. They described in broad terms the language and the social, political and economic structure of the Kurdish society. But their reports were influenced by their European perspective and Catholic dogmatism.

Maurizio Garzoni reached Mosul in 1762 and lived there until 1788. He published the first Kurdish grammar Grammatica e vocabolario della lingua kurda composti dal P. Maurizio Garzoni De' Predicatori Ex-Missionario Apostolico, in Rome (1787).[3] 

This work is very important in the Kurdish history as it is the first acknowledgement of the originality of the Kurdish language on a scientific base.[4] Garzoni was given the title of “father of Kurdology”[5] and of “The pioneer Kurdish grammarian”.[6]

Father Garzoni reports that among themselves Christians use books in their own language. All of them, however, need to know the Kurdish language not only for their daily contacts with Muslims, but also in their economic transactions with the Kurdish owners and tribal chiefs of the region (p. 8).

Giuseppe Campanile wrote Storia della regione del Kurdistan e delle sette di religione ivi esistenti (History of the region of Kurdistan and of the religious sects settled there).[7]

 Published in 1818 in Naples, this book was the first Italian and most probably the first Western work in which the author analyzes only the Kurds and the autochthonous people of Kurdistan. But the facts he reports are characterized by an anti-Kurdish bias.

The Dominican Poldo (Leopoldo Soldini) died in Zakho in 1779 and until this very day his tomb has been a visiting site for the ill in search of a cure.

In 1978, I published my research on the Italian literature on Kurds and Kurdistan from the 13th to the 19th century in the scientifical journal Oriente Moderno.[8] Father Joseph Habbi happened to read it, translated it into Arabic and published it in the Journal of the Iraqi Academy – Kurdish Section.[9]  This proved to be a very good opportunity for me to let my work known among the Kurdish intellectuals. This research has been very important because it brought me fame abroad, at a time when few European researchers were interested on the Kurds and Kurdistan.

My research on the Italian literature is always active and my task is to update it continuously. So I published it into English (1995),[10] into Kurdish in Iran (1996),[11] an enlarged edition in Italian (2001).[12]

Due to my interest on the Italian and European visitors of Kurdistan, I then deepened this subject in my research on the Kurdish cities, as seen through the eyes of their European visitors[13] and Western travellers in Kirkuk.[14]

The presence of numerous Christian and Jewish communities in the region is further justification that there is and was a strong appeal among European and Middle Eastern people of the same faith for visiting Kurdistan. As a mirror image of the biblical world, the Jews and the Eastern Christians played an important role during many  centuries.

The great Jewish and Spanish traveller Benjamin of Tudela visited the Jewish settlements in Kurdistan in the second half of the twelfth century. Benjamin was the first explorer to give a first-hand report on the life of these hardy mountaineers, whom he described as: "militant and independent warriors, subject to no king or minister of the Gentiles, only to a single Jewish minister."[15]

         Especially the Southern and Eastern areas of Kurdistan represent a pluralistic region in terms of  population, where each religious group has maintained its identity. Judaism and Christianity were a considerable force in the Sasanian empire (226-651 A.D.) and their influence was concentrated in Iraq. Rivalries between Persians and Romans had a strong impact on Christians. 

Under the rule of Yazdgard II, Christians were persecuted and twelve thousand of them were martyred in Kirkuk in 445.[16] It is of no small historical interest to find that every year a solemn assembly is still convened to commemorate the death of these martyrs, at the little church on the hillock outside the town which was dyed with their blood.[17] 

         Saint Anastasius was a Persian monk, martyred in 628 under Chosroes II, whose commemoration occurs in many medieval calendars and martyrologies on 22 January. His body was buried at the monastery of St. Sergius near Bethsaloe (Kirkuk), the place of his martyrdom. When news of Anastasius' sufferings and death reached his own monastic community in Jerusalem, there arose a great desire to acquire the martyr's mortal remains. These remains were obtained covertly - since the monks of St. Sergius were unwilling to relinquish the relics - and were brought back in triumph to Palestine, first to Caesarea and then to Jerusalem, where they arrived on  November 2, 631. By the middle of the seventh century (probably already by 645), the head of Anastasius was being venerated in Rome. The monastery of “ad Aquas Salvias”, where the relic of St. Anastasius was kept and venerated, soon became an honored place of pilgrimage.[18] 


         In the Nineties I deepened my analysis on the relationships among the Kurds and the other communities living in Kurdistan, and my research was published in the republic of Armenia in 1994.[19] Since that time I include this chapter in all of my publications on Kurdistan.

            In the twentieth century the Armenian-Kurdish region can be considered a region of genocide. A million and half Armenians perished in the first holocaust of the century (1915).[20] In the same year seventy thousand Assyrians, chaldeans and Syrians were massacred.[21] More than two hundred thousand Turkish Kurds were killed and a million and half deported to Anatolia (1925-1938).[22]

            Since the Seventies the Ba‘th has been applying a strategy of scientific genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddam’s war against the Kurds killed more than four hundred thousand, among whom 182.000 are “missing” or ten per cent of the entire Iraqi Kurdish population.[23]  A million and a half were deported, and four thousand villages destroyed (1987-1988).[24] During March-April 1991, two million among Iraqi Kurdish and Christian refugees sought safety in Iran and Turkey. These data give an idea of the demographic upheavals in this area. In particular the genocide policy seems to have become a method of governing in Kurdistan in the 20th century. We know the region is pluralistic, with different languages, alphabets, religions, and calendars. For thousands of years Muslims (Kurds, Turkomans), Christians (Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans), Jews and Yezidis have lived together.

         The complex relationships among the various communities emerge in part from the travel memoirs of past centuries. Unfortunately research material  is still lacking regarding the structure of the ethnic division of labour and on inter-ethnic relationships in Kurdistan. Numerous publications exist on every community considered singularly, but what is lacking is a comparative analysis of these different cultures, due to various difficulties, the main of which is the linguistic.


In the Nineties in the historical archives of the Ministry of Italian Foreign Affairs in Rome, I started my research on the Italian policy toward the Kurds from the Sèvres treaty until the II World War. I especially focused my attention on the situation in Iraq. During my research I found a huge documentation on the Assyrian question. It is known that during the First World War Assyrians were forced to leave Turkey, in search of a safe haven in Iran, later in Iraq (under the British mandate) and Syria (under the French mandate). So I enlarged my analysis to the Kurds and the Christians of Kurdistan, and I was able to contact Assyrians in the United States and Chaldeans living in France. The two most important Kurdistani Christians communities living in the western diasporas. Since that time I strengthened my relations with both and the Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society[25] published some articles of mine and a long review on my book on the Christians.

In those years I got first hand information on the Christians situation from Father Habbi who used to stay in Italy for a period every year as professor at the Oriental Pontifical Institute in Rome. For his knowledge of different cultures and languages and for his open-mind, Father Habbi was a bridge between Iraq and Europe. He also represents a good example of the importance of the Christians as a link between the Middle East and the West. In 2000 he died in a car accident and his death was a great loss for everyone and for the Christian and Muslim dialogue.

I wondered what I could do to commemorate the person and his work. My vehicle is writing, so the idea sprung up to write a book on the Christians of Kurdistan.

I tried to show my fondness for the whole region and at the same time to give an extensive view of Christians and their history.[26]

I gathered materials already published as analyses, testimonies and interviews. This project was also highly supported by my fellow colleagues and scholars throughout the world.

My basic topic is the history and problems of the Christians of Kurdistan. With this book I try to offer a great amount of information, I show extensive research and present the points of view of numerous individuals, who were or are today witness to the predicament faced by Christians of Kurdistan.

I analyze both the “Christians of Kurdistan” and the “Christians from Kurdistan”, making it clear that the region called Kurdistan by the Kurds is the Chaldea, Assyria or Media for the Christians.

The various Christian Churches have different denominations and include the Armenian Church, the Syrian Orthodox (or Jacobites), the Syrian Catholics, the Eastern Syrian (Church of the East or Nestorians), the Chaldeans who rejoined the Catholic Church, and so on.

It is a peculiarity of Iraq that most Christians are Catholic, about seventy-seventy five per cent. It is comprehensible why the Vatican pays such strong attention to Iraq.

The Christians are dispersed, divided into different confessions, uncertain as to their ethnic identity and concerned about Muslim intolerance. The task of my historical analyses is to understand not only the past but also the future of the Christian communities in Kurdistan.

My book traces the history of the Kurdistani Christians from the biblical time, of Noah who landed on Ararat or on Judu mount, up to the 21st century Christian diaspora.

In the past the Christians were isolated geographically and culturally. Christian communities were organized in tribes, under the religious and political authority of their patriarchs. In the long phase spanning the 16th to the 18th century, on one hand we see Christians who tend to integrate with the Kurdish social and economic structure and, on the other, who are the object of missionary Catholic penetration.

         The presence of missionaries generally had nefarious consequences. Besides, in the 19th century the Western protestant churches arrived in the Ottoman empire and the Russian orthodox church penetrated in Iran, especially in the Urmia region. All these foreign Christian presences in Kurdistan were disastrous because they ruptured the century-long relationships that existed between the autochthonous Christians and their Muslim neighbours. This intrusion contributed to induce, even though unintentionally, the expulsion of the Christians, the Armenian genocide and the massacre of the Assyro-Chaldeans.

An important part of the book refers to emigration, the diaspora and the future of Christians of and from Kurdistan.

For better or for worse, the destiny of Christians of Kurdistan is inextricably bound to the destiny of Kurds, especially of Iraqi Kurds, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. In North Iraq there has been quite a positive political progress for all of the population, and not only for the Kurds.

The 1991 the Gulf War accelerated the migratory flow of Christians to the West. Like the rest of the population, Christians suffered embargoes, political instability and an uncertain future.

Even though Iraqi Christians can publish their magazines, have their own TV channels and radios, Assyrians and Chaldeans continue to emigrate due to the chronic uncertainties of the region, in hope to acquiring security, a higher social status, longing for a more promising future in the West. Moreover, the existence of Islamic fundamentalism in their midst only energizes their desire to relocate.

I devote a special attention to the diaspora. Are the Christians destined to disappear? They face dangers on all sides. In the Middle East they run the risk of being absorbed by Middle Eastern societies. When they emigrate, they are absorbed by the western societies to which they emigrate. The day isn’t far, maybe we have already crossed it, when the greater part of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syrians will reside in the diaspora. Emigration takes on an irreversible character.

Christians have organized themselves in political parties and associations, and they publish periodicals, thus cultivating the sense of belonging and strengthening community ties among groups dispersed in some fifty countries.

The satellite antennas and the internet are able to forge a new international solidarity, giving a sense of ethnic belonging. A person has only to click on a search engine with the words “Assyrians” or “Chaldeans” to find numerous sites all over the world. But the question is, how many diaspora Christians do that? It is difficult, especially for the new generations, to maintain their original identity because it is so easy to integrate into the host community.

Father Joseph Habbi spoke out: “It is pernicious to publish pessimistic analyses regarding the extinction of Christians in the Middle East… We are going through a crisis, but we can’t talk of disappearance… The departure of Christians isn’t good for anyone. For centuries Christians have been an element of equilibrium in the region. Pluralism and heterogeneity abate tensions; they avoid the formation of a compact Islamic block against the West and Israel”.

I must say the book deserves consensus, so I am determined to deepen this subject. Societies in Kurdistan are on the move and I believe it is fundamental to fix, to make a photo of the present situation, because in a few years this reality will be archaeological remains.




[1] A Catholic patriarchate established in Mesopotamia in 1531. In 1632 a mission of Capuchin friars was founded in Mosul and definitely closed  in 1725. Thomas Bois  O.P., “Les Dominicains à l'avant-garde de la Kurdologie au XVIIIe siècle”, Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum, XXXV (1965), p. 262-292.

[2] Domenico Lanza, Compendiosa relazione istorica dei viaggi fatti dal Padre Domenico Lanza dell'Ordine dei Predicatori da Roma in Oriente dall'anno 1753 al 1771, Archivum Generale Ordinis Praedicatorum, S. Sabina, Roma, Ms. XIII, 07.2000, p. 625 (manuscript).

Domenico Lanza, al-Mawsil fî 'l-gîl ath-thâmin 'ashar, trans. from Italian by R. Bîdawîd, Mossul, Matba'at an-Nagm, 1951, p. 78 (2a ed., Mossul, Matba'at ash-Sharqiyyat al-Hadîthah, 1953, p. 101).

Domenico Lanza's manuscript has never been published in Italy, while some parts of it have been translated into Arabic and published in Iraq. As a priest and a physician, Lanza contacted a large number of notables in Mosul. He could describe the society and the life of the town from the inside with first-hand  information, even  though his apostolate was aimed at composing the differences between the Catholic Church and the Nestorian dissenters. For this activity Lanza is now considered the forerunner of ecumenism in Mosul. His remarks on the Kurds are marginal and follow the common line of thought.           

[3] Maurizio Garzoni, Grammatica e vocabolario della lingua kurda composti dal P. Maurizio Garzoni De' Predicatori Ex-Missionario Apostolico, Roma, Nella Stamperia della Sacra Congregazione di Propaganda Fide, 1787, p. 288.

[4] According to Michele Febvre, the French Capuchins would  have composed a Kurdish Dictionary and a Kurdish grammar during their stay in Amadiya and Mosul (Michele Febvre Teatro della Turchia, Bologna, per gli heredi di Gio. Recaldini, 1683, p. 342). But  these manuscripts were probably lost (Thomas Bois, op. cit.,  p. 275).

[5] Basile Nikitine, "Shamdînân", Encyclopaedia de l'Islam1 , vol. IV, p. 315.

[6] L. O. Fossum, A practical Kurdish grammar, Minneapolis, The inter-Synodical Ev. Lutheran Orient-Mission Society, 1919 p. 272.

[7] Giuseppe Campanile, Storia della regione del Kurdistan e delle sette di religione ivi esistenti, Napoli, dalla stamperia de' Fratelli Fernandes, 1818, p. XX+213.

[8] Mirella Galletti, “Curdi e Kurdistan in opere italiane del XIII- XIX secolo”, Oriente Moderno, LVIII, n. 11, 1978,  p. 563-596.

[9] Mirella Galletti, “at-turâth al-kurdî fî mu'allafât al-itâliyyin“, Magallat al-magma' al-' ilmî al-'irâqî al-hay'ah al-kurdiyyah, (Baghdâd), 1981, p. 225-300.

[10] Mirella Galletti, "The Italian contribution to Kurdology (13th to 20th century)", The Journal of Kurdish Studies (Louvain), Peeters Press, vol. I, 1995, p. 97-112.

[11] Sirwe (Urmia), 1st part, n. 133-134, 1997, p. 21-25; 2nd part, n. 135, 1997, p. 7-13. 

[12] Mirella Galletti, “Curdi e Kurdistan in opere italiane dal XIII al XX secolo”, in: Mirella Galletti, Le relazioni tra Italia e Kurdistan, [Roma], Istituto per l'Oriente C.A. Nallino, 2001, p. 1-108 («Quaderni di Oriente Moderno», XX [LXXXI], n.s., 3).

[13] Mirella Galletti, “Kurdish cities through the eyes of their European Visitors”, in: Mirella Galletti, Le relazioni tra Italia e Kurdistan, [Roma], Istituto per l'Oriente C.A. Nallino, 2001, p. 109-148 («Quaderni di Oriente Moderno», XX [LXXXI], n.s., 3).

[14]  Mirella Galletti. “Reports on Kirkuk by modern European visitors”, in: Kirkuk. The city of Ethnic Harmony. Scientific Symposium Held by Karbala Centre for research & studies in London on 21-22 July 2001 (1-2 Jamadi al-Ula 1422 Hijri), first edition, London, Published by a group of academic Iraqis residing in London – Karbala Centre for Research & Studies, 2002, p. A1-A31.

Mirella Galletti, “Kirkuk: the Pivot of Balance in Iraq. Past and Present”, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2005, p. 21-52.

[15] “The Oriental Travels of Rabbi Benjamin of Tutela”, in: Manuel Komroff (edited by), Contemporaries of Marco Polo. Consisting of the Travel Records to the Eastern parts of the world..., New York, Boni & Liveright, 1928, p. 290-291.

[16] Jean Maurice Fiey O.P. “Vers la réhabilitation de l'histoire de Karka d'Bét Slôh”, Analecta Bollandiana, vol. 82, fasc. 1-2, 1964, p. 211-213. Under Yazdgard II (439-57), religious fanaticism culminated in the attempt forcibly to convert Christian Armenia, the Zoroastrian clergy having an important share in this project and in widespread persecution of all non-Zoroastrian religions, including the Jewish minority. See Ehsan Yarshater (edited by), The Cambridge history of Iran. Volume 3 (2). The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, 942.

[17] Percy Sykes, A History of Persia, London, MacMillan and Co., 1951, p. 435-436.

[18] Carmela Vircillo Franklin - Paul Meyvaert, “Has Bede's Version of the “Passio S. Anastasii” come down to us in “BHL” 408?”, Analecta Bollandiana, vol. 100, 1982, 373-400; Bernard Flusin, Saint Anastase le Perse et l’histoire de la Palestine au début du VIIe siècle, Paris, CNRS, 1992, vols. 2.

[19] Mirella Galletti, “Kurdistan: A mosaic of peoples”, Acta Kurdica. The International Journal of Kurdish & Iranian Studies, I (1994), p. 43-52.

[20] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, London, Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 356.

[21] Harry Norris – David Taylor, “The Christians”, in: Richard Tapper (edited by), Some minorities in the Middle East, London, Centre of Near & Middle Eastern Studies - School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1992, p. 26; Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East. A history of struggle and self-expression, Jefferson  (N.C.)-London, McFarland & Company, 1991, p. XII+300.

[22] Jürgen Roth, (edited by), Geographie der Unterdrückten - die Kurden, Hamburg, Rowohlt, 1978, p. 68.

[23] Kendal Nezan, “Quand ‘notre’ ami Saddam gazait ses Kurdes”, Le Monde Diplomatique, n. 528, a. 45, mars 1998, p. 18-19.

[24] Resool Mustafa Shorsh, Genocide mass deportation. 3839 villages and towns  destroyed in Iraqi Kurdistan, s.l., Information Department P.U.K., 1989, p. 379.

[25] Mirella Galletti, “Italian Policy Towards Assyrians and Kurds (1920-1943)”, Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society, vol. IX, n. 2, 1995, p. 3-24,

[26] Mirella Galletti, Cristiani del Kurdistan, Roma, 2003, p. 335.

(*) Professor at Naples University