Three years ago, in late 2010, I sat down in Iraq with the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona. Bishop Emil had taken over the northeastern Iraqi diocese the year before, when his predecessor was murdered. It's an occupational hazard for Christian clergy in this part of the world.
When the bishop received me at his church in a suburb of Mosul, he told me his biggest task was convincing his parishioners to remain in the country. A few weeks earlier, a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad had been attacked and two priests and 41 congregants had been killed, along with a dozen police and several bystanders. The al Qaeda-connected Islamic State in Iraq movement claimed responsibility. The group had been on the rise as the United States withdrew its forces from the country.
The bloodbath in Baghdad was enough to spook the Christians in Mosul, thousands of whom, of all denominations, had headed off for the 2010 Christmas season, staying in nearby Syria (then still at peace) or Turkey or pushing on to Central Europe. The Chaldean Catholic community, an Eastern-rite Catholic faith that is independent of Rome but recognizes the Pope's authority, is the largest Christian denomination in Mosul, and in Iraq, but it was reduced to a fraction of its original size by the exodus.
Bishop Emil told me he was sure the people would be back; after all, the Christian community in Iraq is one of the oldest in the world – it was only a question of time before they returned.
Three years later, he's still waiting.
"Christians are finished here in Iraq," said Isaac Napoleon, a Chaldean Catholic, this week in Baghdad. Mr. Napoleon has lost a brother and a son to terrorist attacks, and says he'll be leaving just as soon as he can.
"They won't come back," said Canon Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, reflecting on the exit of Christians in general. "They won't even come back here to visit," he said sadly.
This is very unsettling for a religious community that was formed 2000 years ago, when the apostle Thomas came through Mesopotamia on his way, ultimately, to India. He stayed long enough in what is now Iraq to set up a vibrant church that has withstood assorted invasions and natural disasters.
"We mustn't let it go," said Canon White, whose own relatively small congregation has had more than 1000 members killed. His own daughter and her husband-to-be have moved now to Canada.
The Vicar works tirelessly to bring together the many Christian denominations in Iraq, as well as religious leaders from within the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities, believing there is strength in banding together in the face of terrorist assaults.
That very subject was addressed just last Sunday by Pope Francis in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa: "In some countries they kill Christians because they wear a cross or have a Bible, and before killing them they don't ask if they're Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholic or Orthodox," the pope said.
Describing it as a kind of "ecumenism of blood", he said "we're united in blood, even if among ourselves we still haven't succeeded in taking the necessary steps towards unity."
However, they're also united in exodus. Some two thirds of the 1.4 million Christians in Iraq a decade ago have now left the country.
After that initial rush in 2010, it appeared that the tide of refugees flowing out of Iraq had slowed. But the conflict in neighbouring Syria and the resurrection of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has made the situation as dangerous as ever, and not just for Shiites, who are the main target of the Sunni Jihadists.
Six Christian families a day are now leaving Iraq, said Chaldean Catholic priest Stephan Banan this week in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. He raised this new fact in a way few Western countries will appreciate.
The people are leaving, he said, "due to a comprehensive strategy adopted to help Christians flee by giving them visas to foreign countries."
Ouch! And just when those countries, Canada included, thought they were helping defenceless people.
As Globe and Mail reporter Campbell Clark noted in April, while visiting Iraq with Foreign Minister John Baird, "the Harper government's interest in Iraq's religious minorities has in the past appeared to focus more on Christians, including efforts to resettle thousands of Iraqis in Canada, the ranks of whom have included many Christians."
A leading Iraqi Christian MP made a point of asking Mr. Baird to review Canada's immigration policy out of concern it was contributing to the shrinking number of Iraq's Christians.
The newly appointed Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Louis Sako said recently that the last thing he wants is for it to be easy for members of his congregation to emigrate. He wants them to stay, and he doesn't feel that western countries fully appreciate the kind of help Iraq's Christians need.
"We feel forgotten and isolated," Patriarch Sako said last week. "We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?"
Aware of this concern, Prince Charles this past week spoke out about the need to work to save the Christian community in the Middle East.
"Now is the time to redouble our combined efforts to stress what binds the three Abrahamic faiths together and, as Christians, Jews and Muslims, to express outrage at what tears us asunder," said the Prince of Wales.
He noted that Tuesday in the Eastern Christian calendar was the festival of Daniel and the three boys in the fiery furnace – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. "They symbolize all those who are persecuted for their faith," said Prince Charles. "But the important point is: they survived."