The terrible human toll that the Iraq war has taken on the country's Sunni and Shia Muslim populations has been well documented by mainstream news organizations.
But the intense suffering of Iraq's indigenous Christians and their desperate struggle for survival in an increasingly intolerant society has been largely ignored by both the media and the community of nations.
Although Iraq is a Muslim-majority country, it is also home to a number of indigenous religious minority communities. Sadly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion for all, is not being respected in Iraq.
Non-Muslims are routinely intimidated by extremists, churches are destroyed and clergy murdered.
The rapid decline of religious pluralism so concerned the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel created by the U.S. Congress to advise the Bush administration on the Iraq war that it declared in 2006 that "the rights of all minority communities in Iraq" must be protected.
Iraq's Christian community has been hit particularly hard hit by sectarian violence and criminal attacks, most recently in the northern city of Mosul.
Yet the U.S. administration is reluctant to even acknowledge the problem. When asked if the forced migration of Iraqi Christians constituted "ethnic cleansing," a U.S. State Department official replied: "We're not using that term."
The reason for the state department's evasion is clear: if the U.S. government concedes that Iraqi Christians are being ethnically cleansed or driven out of their homeland, the United States would have an obligation under international law to halt such crimes against humanity. But further entanglement in Iraq is not on the American agenda.
The incoming Obama administration has pledged to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, leaving Iraq's battered Christian community to fend for itself.
Although no reliable pre-war census data exists, it has been estimated that there were at least a million Christians in Iraq at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada (CNEWA-Canada), a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, 400,000 Christians, representing 40 per cent of Iraq's Christian community, have fled since the start of the Iraq war.
Many others have been displaced within Iraq. Thousands of Christian families have retreated north to the Nineveh Plain seeking refuge at Mosul, which has a large Christian population.
"They want to escape persecution from southern points, like Basrah and Baghdad," says Nina Shea, a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent organization established by Congress to advise the U.S. government on matters of religious liberty around the globe.
For Iraq's battered Christian community, says Shea, "Mosul in the north was the last refuge within Iraq."
That changed in October when Christians in Mosul peacefully protested a controversial amendment to Iraq's election law that strips the Christian minority of representation on provincial councils. Muslim extremists responded by unleashing a murderous terror campaign on the city's Christian population.
That lethal campaign has been chillingly methodical, according to Carl Hetu, National Secretary of CNEWA-Canada. "What we've heard from people in the field, is that each person identified as Christian has received a letter telling them: 'You leave Mosul and Iraq, or you will be killed.'"
Given that the victims in Mosul were "randomly selected and killed for no other apparent reason than they are Christian," says Nina Shea, it is likely that the extremists are bent on ridding Mosul of Christians.
The assassinations of at least 15 Christians sparked a frenzied mass exodus from Mosul; an estimated 13,0000 Christians fled to surrounding villages and neighbouring Jordan.
"Our fear is that this endangered community is reaching a point of no return, where they will leave, and it will be the complete destruction of that community," Shea says of Iraq's Christians. "This has already happened with the Mandaean population [an ancient minority]; ninety per cent of them have fled since 2003."
The roots of violence
The vast majority of Iraqi Christians are of Assyrian ethnicity, notes Nina Shea, who authored 1997's In the Lions' Den, which detailed the persecution of Christians around the world during the 20th century.
Many Assyrians, however, prefer to identify themselves by their religious denomination, Chaldean Catholic.
According to CNEWA-Canada, approximately 66 per cent of Assyrian Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. The rest of the Assyrian community belongs to other denominations, including Syriac Orthodox, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Armenian Apostolic and Assyrian of the East (Orthodox).
Regardless of denomination, every Assyrian in Iraq is in imminent danger.
"The Assyrian nation is being persecuted for their ethnicity and faith," says Rosie Malek-Yonan, an Assyrian-American activist, actress and author. "By any definition, this is genocide. It began in 2003 and it is still going on." (Nina Shea refers to the attacks on the Assyrians as "religio-ethnic cleansing.")
Tragically, this is not the first time the Assyrians have faced possible annihilation. Approximately 750,000 Assyrians of Mesopotamia (modern day northern Iraq) were driven from their lands and slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish allies between 1914 and 1918.
The religious minorities of Iraq, including Christians, are "easy targets of intimidation and abuse," Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie admitted in a press release issued earlier this year after the slaying of Paulus Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul.
Why are Christians such easy prey?
First, Muslim extremists and criminal gangs are free to target Christians because the Iraqi central government simply hasn't done enough to protect Christian communities.
Second, "Christians0 do not have militias to protect them, unlike Islamic sects," explains Nina Shea. CNEWA-Canada agrees.
Christians in Middle East
According to CNEWA-Canada's Carl Hetu, the plight of Christians in Iraq should be viewed in the larger "context of the future of Christianity" in the Middle East.
"That's where Jesus started off, where the Apostles sacrificed so much," Hetu reminds us. And he points out that the indigenous Christians of the Middle East are "the first descendants of the Apostles and the first Christians."
Similarly, Rosie Malek-Yonan states that the Assyrians of Mesopotamia were "the first nation to accept Christianity in the first century AD, and continue to speak Aramaic, the language of Christ."
Testifying before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee in 2006, Malek-Yonan told lawmakers that "if things continue to proceed as they are right now, within ten years the Assyrian population of Iraq will be eradicated because of ethnic cleansing, forced exodus and migration."
If Christians in Canada, the United States and Europe remain silent in the face of such crimes against humanity, declares Carl Hetu, "there will no longer be any Christians in Iraq in ten years time."
"I wish Western people would speak up [about religious oppression]," said Shea in 2997, "even if it's not for religious reasons, but for security reasons." She believes the issue of religious freedom and pluralism in Muslim-majority countries "is part of the contest of ideas" between liberal democracy and radical Islam.
CNEWA-Canada recently dispatched emergency aid teams to the Middle East to assess the ongoing refugee crisis there. In Syria and Jordan, where there are about 250,000 Christian refugees living with no place to call home, the circumstances are truly desperate.
"The situation is really, really bad," says Hetu, referring to a recent field report from Jordan. "People have nothing, and the villages that are welcoming them don't have the resources to take care of them."
So what can Canadians do to help Iraqi Christians?
"I think that they should be pressing their [federal] government to urge [Iraqi prime minister] Maliki to protect them," answers Shea from her Washington, DC office.
From his Ottawa headquarters, Hetu offers a more concrete answer: contribute financially to CNEWA-Canada's ongoing Iraqi relief campaign, which distributes necessities of life--food, water, blankets and tents--to Christians refugees. Christians of all denominations are eligible for this humanitarian assistance.
CNEWA-Canada also engages in pastoral care of Iraqi Christians. "The regular Christian life needs to be sustained, as well," says Hetu, "by providing for the basic needs of the persecuted Church, including religious instruction for Christian youth.
Canadians can also help Iraqi refugees by donating to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which conducts humanitarian missions in Iraq and assists Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries.
The indigenous Christians of Iraq and the Middle East will be indispensable in any initiative to foster peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity. Hetu says it best: "They are our voice between the East and the West."
However, if we allow Christian communities in Iraq and elsewhere to be wiped out, we will lose our voice in the Middle East, possibly condemning humanity to endless religious conflict.
By Geoffrey Johnston