|Some Iraqi civilians stand amid the ruble left after bomb blast outside of a church in Baghdad, Iraq on Sunday Aug 1, 2004|
In the language of Jesus
This week's attacks on churches in Iraq are a reminder of a small community that has lived for years with the term "beleaguered", but has the potential to re-establish a more tolerant way of life in the Middle East.
It might easily be assumed that Iraqi Christians are a colonial implant that any self-respecting nationalist would view with suspicion.
But in fact they are among the oldest religious communities in the world.
Protected for most of their long history by Islam's tradition of tolerance, they are honoured for their own great gift to mutual understanding:
Syriac, a version of Jesus's native language, Aramaic. This was the vital bridge in the transmission of Greek, Roman and Jewish thought into Arabic, from which Aristotle, Plato and company eventually returned in the Renaissance to Europe.
Its greatest stronghold is just outside Iraq, in Turkey's Tur Abdin, the "Mountains of the Servants of God", where an intriguing shift is taking place.
Pilgrims, students, and tourists of all faiths and none, are returning to nearby monasteries, which were 700 years old when the first stones were laid at Fountains or Rievaulx. Four-and-a-half centuries after the English abbeys were dissolved by Henry VIII, the cloisters still ring with Syriac chants.
Yet it is only 20 years since the pocket-sized congregations lived in terror, with bombs going off outside their walls. Almost everyone with the money to do so had fled to the west.
Like their co-religionists in Iraq today, the Christians were caught up in a civil insurgency that saw fundamentalist hatreds let loose.
As in Iraq, the quarrel was not of their making. The issue was Kurdish separatism and the Turkish army's iron-fisted response.
Anyone "different" was potentially a target for both sides; and old resentments resurfaced that Christians were better-educated and had a rich diaspora in the United States.
It was the thinnest of times; but the churches not only survived but are now enjoying a revival that could in due course help their Iraqi counterparts.
|Chaldean Church Al-Tahera in Mosul, Iraq|
With armed Kurdish insurgency defeated, the Turkish government two years ago began to move towards greater regionalism.
Its need to reach first base for membership of the European Union has been a key factor. Most encouragingly of all, the region's Muslim communities are lending a hand.
The process is best seen in Sanliurfa, an important Islamic shrine. Abraham - Ibrahim to Muslims - is said to have lived here and his cave attracts permanent devout queues.
But the city is also crucial in Christian history. As pre-Byzantine Edessa it was the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as the official religion, more than 500 years before St Augustine landed in Kent.
Jesus legendarily corresponded with its king, as the local council goes out of its way to acknowledge.
Sanliurfa is now promoting what it calls "belief tourism", inviting Muslims, Jews and Christians to come together and share the ancient sites.
The process is an eastern version of Spain's work in Toledo and Cordoba to create "three faith" centres where divisive myths can be dismantled and real divisions understood.
And what lessons there are to be learned: how Christians, Jews and Muslims lived as neighbours for centuries under the Caliphate and the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Ottoman empire.
How Saladdin's strongest allies against the tolerance-wrecking Crusaders were the Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Egyptian Copts.
This may seem far off and fanciful to the now embattled Christians of Iraq. But it is a stone's throw from their border; it honours the noblest traditions of Islam; and it has deeper and longer-term potential for countering al-Qaida than guns.
Martin Wainwright is the Guardian's Northern editor.
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