This is horrible.

While the Iraqi government has belatedly taken some modest steps to ease the suffering of Iraqi Christians, the U.S. government’s consistent policy of studied and shameful indifference forms rare common ground between the Bush and Obama administrations. It is an indelible stain on American honor that two administrations did nothing to assist, much less protect, a beleaguered religious minority. Such was not the case in the Balkans a decade ago, when the Clinton administration came to the aid of embattled Muslim minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo with decisive military force in similar circumstances. In Iraq, however, America’s unmet moral obligations were and are the direct consequence of the security vacuum arising from the American-led destruction of Saddam’s Republic of Fear.

I wish I was surprised. Here are some origins.

This policy of malign neglect helps explain why so few Americans are even aware that Iraq still remains a rich ethnic and religious mosaic beyond the simple tripartite division of all Iraqis into three warring tribes: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Fewer still are aware that Christianity in Mesopotamia dates from the mid-first century, when local tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas (the same doubting Thomas who appears in John’s Gospel) founded what became the Church of the East, the only enduring Christian community formed outside the borders of the Roman empire during apostolic times. Thomas’s mission predates the arrival of Islam by six centuries and serves as a needed reminder that early Christianity was an essentially Eastern phenomenon.

Today, the vast majority of Iraqi Christians share common roots in the Church of the East, which split into two branches in the 16th century, one Roman Catholic (Chaldean) and the other essentially Orthodox (Assyrian). Both churches worship partly in Arabic and partly in Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke. Smaller Christian denominations include Syriac Christians (mainly Roman Catholic, but also Orthodox), Latin Rite Roman Catholics and other historic Middle Eastern churches (mainly Orthodox and Armenian), and some Protestants (mostly Anglicans) and Evangelicals.

It was not so long ago that Iraqi Christians belonging to all these churches played a unique and vital role in the common life of modern Iraq. Their contributions, both institutional and individual, once formed an irreplaceable part of the fabric of Iraqi life. And their contributions in turn played a wholly disproportionate role in relation to their actual numbers in an overwhelmingly Muslim society.

On the one hand, there was a web of church institutions — schools, hospitals, clinics, and orphanages — that served all Iraqis regardless of faith. Of these, none was more prominent than Baghdad College, a remarkable Jesuit preparatory school for boys that turned out a disproportionate share of Iraq’s political and cultural elite between 1931 and 1968. As with most other church schools, fully half the student body were Muslim. Even today, 40 years after the American priests and seminarians were expelled and all private schools nationalized in the wake of the Six-Day War, Baghdad College’s legacy endures. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, three of the four leading candidates for prime minister (all Muslims, of course) were former students. So too are many other distinguished Iraqis, such as Kanan Makiya, whose 1989 classic Republic of Fear shattered the wall of silence around the Baathist dictatorship. Yet this one school’s splendid example is by no means a strictly Iraqi or purely historical phenomenon, as Christian schools continue to educate an outsized share of local Muslim elites in places as diverse as Egypt (Gamal Mubarak) or Pakistan (the late Benazir Bhutto).

On the other hand, there was and remains individual Christian witness to values that are in notably short supply in Iraq nowadays, especially respect for one’s neighbor regardless of faith and willingness to resolve disputes without recourse to violence. These particular values are ones their Muslim neighbors most often acknowledge and admire, as I learned while living and working as a Catholic seminarian in Jordan a decade ago. And they are precisely the same ideals Pope Benedict XVI cited in his annual Christmas message on Saturday:

How can we forget the troubled situation in Iraq and the little flock of Christians which lives in the region? At times it is subject to violence and injustice, but it remains determined to make its own contribution to the building of a society opposed to the logic of conflict and the rejection of one’s neighbor.

Yet these same values have made Iraqi Christians easy targets for Sunni and Shiite extremists and common criminals in the utter collapse of law and order that followed the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Unlike their Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish neighbors, Iraqi Christians have no private militias, no powerful foreign patrons — and no fighting ideology like the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood or its Shiite counterparts. They are thus the only group in Iraq without blood on their hands, holy innocents caught up in an unholy war.

Last year, I wrote about how practically every Christian neighborhood, parish, or family was repeatedly forced to pay protection money (jizya) to avoid exile, murder, or forced conversion to Islam. These evils were universally justified by their perpetrators on the basis of the same Koranic verses dealing with subject peoples, but they were seldom if ever publicly denounced as a perversion of Muslim faith by Iraq’s influential Muslim clergy.

This year, Iraq’s dwindling Christian communities are still being targeted on the basis of their faith. That is especially the case in Mosul, long the most lawless and violent place in Iraq. By an unhappy coincidence, Mosul is also located in the ancestral heartland of Iraqi Christianity, and is thus the last refuge (short of exile) for Christians fleeing targeted violence in Baghdad, Basra, and other places.

Mosul is therefore a target-rich environment.

There is sadly more. This should not be left up to historians yet this is a blog and I copied it from a more famous blog. Nothing will be done and lives will be lost. There is one thing left we can do:

Spare a thought — and perhaps also a prayer — for Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, who yesterday observed the somber Feast of the Holy Innocents.