The lethal attacks on five churches in Iraq violated the stated will of the prophet Muhammad, who in the 7th century issued a Firman —or letter of protection — for Assyrian Christians.

Assyrians make up the majority of the 700,000 Christians in present-day Iraq. Muhammad was so impressed with their ancestors' knowledge of medicine and the sciences that he decreed for them to be left in peace, according to Albert Yelda, formerly the Christian representative in the leadership of the London-based Iraqi National Congress.

The Firman disappeared without trace in 1847, Yelda told United Press International. Assyrians believe that the then-Turkish rulers destroyed this document before setting out to kill 30,000 Christians.

Joseph Yacoub, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Lyon, France, fears that the coordinated car bombings of churches may accomplish what Muhammad had tried to prevent. "There exists a definite risk that the Christian presence will be reduced to a level of insignificance," he told the French newspaper, Le Figaro.

"So far there had just been attacks on Christian individuals," this leading expert on Middle Eastern Christianity continued. "But now the bombers have taken on the entire community. Their message is clear: This is Muslim territory; it does not belong to you."

Thus one of the most remarkable set of Christians is once again threatened with extinction. The Assyrians, of whom there are 1.5 million worldwide, are descendants of one of the oldest civilizations: Mesopotamia. Almost three millennia ago, they excelled in astronomy, jurisprudence, the arts, architecture, medicine, and the natural sciences.

Assyrians were the first nation to adopt Christianity as their state religion in A.D. 179, more than a century before Armenia. They claim to have been the first to build churches and to translate the New Testament from Greek into their vernacular — Aramaic, the language of Christ.

In the 8th century, not long after Muhammad's death, Assyrians were the first to send missionaries to China, Mongolia, and even Japan. They were Nestorians, heretics in the eyes of the rest of the church because they followed the teachings of Nestorius, a 5th-century bishop of Constantinople who taught that the Virgin Mary was not the theodokos, or mother of God, but simply the mother of Jesus Christ.

This fine point of theology has long ceased to stand in the way of Christian unity in Iraq. In the 16th century, a major segment of the Nestorian church united with Rome while retaining its ancient liturgy. They are now called the Chaldean Church, to which most Assyrian Christians belong.

The remaining Nestorians are on excellent of terms with the Chaldeans, while maintaining different traditions. Their liturgy is extremely "high;" yet their incense-filled sanctuaries appear as stark as synagogues or Reformed churches.

There is no iconostasis — a partition or screen decorated with icons separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church. There are no graven images. A simple cross above the altar is the only adornment of a Nestorian church. Nestorians call their priests "rabi;" like orthodox Jews they eschew mixed marriages.

While the Assyrians lived in peace for much of the first 11 centuries since the Muslim conquest of their homeland, martyrdom has been their fate for the past 150 years.

The massacre of 30,000 Christians in 1847 was succeeded by another in 1896. In 1915 the Turks slaughtered not only over one million Armenians but also 250,000 Assyrians, a fact seldom mentioned when the first holocaust of the 20th century is being discussed.

There are still some old men alive in Iraq who were forcible converted to Islam in their childhood but remained Christians in their hearts, fasting during Lent and making merry at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

During Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the Assysians' persecution was in a sense more of a cultural than a religious nature. "Tyrants hate minorities," said Yelda. Hence Saddam had hundreds of Assyrian villages razed, including one 2nd-century church. He also banned the Assyrians' cultural clubs where they had kept their literary language alive.

But in Saddam's days, too, Muslim mobs terrorized Iraqi Christians, beheading on August 15, 2002, a Chaldean nun, Sister Cecilia Hanna, whose monastery they had stormed.

Like their cousins, the Jews, Assyrians are now scattered around the world. Almost 300,000 went to America, primarily the Chicago area. Others live in Jordan, Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

It is with a heavy heart that Pope John Paul II reacted to the news of the murderous attacks on Iraq's churches by stressing his closeness to the marvelous and venerable Christian culture, which is at the point of oblivion.

Uwe Siemon-Netto is UPI's religious affairs editor.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's Weblog has covered the church bombings and their aftermath. Keep checking this feature for the latest news and analysis on Iraqi Christians.

For more in Iraq and its Christians, see our full coverage area. We also have a full coverage area for the war in that country.