BAGHDAD – Everywhere in the Iraqi capital is an off-limits “red zone” for Westerners except for the American invasion's legacy known as the “green zone.” This central quarter in Baghdad, accessible only by the right identification document or special permission, is actually a sort of privileged prison for those with valuable blood.

But I have not come to see the green zone; I am on the trail of the ever insecure people of the red zone, those which history so easily prefers to write off.

It's the last Friday of February. We pass the Tigris; moving towards Karrada. The traffic is dense, which makes us nervous, and talk turns to what one should do if a bomb sets off. For the past two days, we'd been traveling in an armored vehicle, with our driver Mahmud's hand moving constantly between the shift stick and his Kalashnikov. The vehicle is not armored this time.

Today's driver, Muhammad, asks again: “Did you say Saint Raphael? Can it be Rahibet? Because there is no other Christian hospital in this area.”

Security is tight at the entrance of the street. Civilian bodyguards are watching the surroundings in front of the building with the sign "Saint Raphael." The well-equipped hospital is choked full. I have arranged to meet with someone with strong credentials, who can help explain the Christian “exodus" from the Middle East, which started in Iraq with the U.S. invasion, and has spread to Egypt and then Syria in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

But my contact is nervous – there is a price here for even talking, and the man was clearly on edge. “I do not know much,” he says. He recommended instead that we see the priest of the Catholic Assyrian Church Seyyidet el Necad, where 58 people were murdered during a mass on October 31, 2010.

Young Iraqi christians watch an American patrol outside the St. Mary Chaldean church in Baghdad. Photo: Nikos Pilos/ZUMA

Baghdad, Iraq - Adora area. St. Mary ,Chaldian church. Young Christians are watching through the garden an American patrol which has just finished a verification at the near school.

The exodus

Eventually, there, we would manage to find a victim of the raid.

“No photos, no name, no address...”

All right.

Nothing she told was a secret, but she was afraid of again being a target if identified.

“We are under threat. My family, my friends escaped abroad. The escape started after the invasion, but the massacre in 2010 would wind up being a turning point," she said. The escape accelerated. Four hundred thousand Christians left, from a population of over 1.5 million.

"They went to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt; those who have the means go to Europe and the U.S. Some settled in Kurdistan," said the woman. "The church attack achieved its goal. I was hurt by broken glass. We were taken to France by a private plane for treatment. But I am back here in trouble again.”

So, why did she not leave Iraq?

“This is my country. I am proud to be Iraqi, and Arab. I was born here and I will die here," she said. “The bombs do not differentiate. We die together in the street as Muslims and Christians."

She said that the Iraqi government has made some efforts at protection. "The Christians are a pretty qualified group. We are all educated and have jobs. There is a need for these kinds of people.”

In peril

This woman of faith holds no grudges. Everybody knows that the Christians who are in the crossfire of the Shiite-Sunni clash are also a prime target of al-Qaeda and their "leave, pigs, or die" policy of kidnappings, executions and bombings. 

The cradle of civilization is in peril. The Middle East once was a place where different religions, denominations and cultures lived together despite the historical enmities and provocations that might flare up, from time to time, and place to place. Unfortunately the cities that are the symbols of religious and denominational peace are under threat today in the wake of the American invasion a decade ago.

The tradition of coexisting has been badly damaged by the Sunni-Shiite struggle, alongside open enmity towards the religious minorities – and the Syrian crisis has only deepened the conflict. What we are losing is the spirit of cities like Aleppo, where the culture of tolerance had long been a source of pride, and the cosmopolitan spirit of Mosul.

Tolerance for violence is the most dangerous thing; and minorities provide a society with balance and modesty, a safeguard against the extremes of the prevailing majority.

Iraq left me with a heavy heart. My phone rang as soon as I landed in Istanbul on the evening of Feb. 23. The news was bad: our driver Mahmud had been killed in an attack at a roadside checkpoint.