While Israel ramped up its offensive in Gaza on Sunday, with appalling loss of life and injuries, 1,200km to the north-west in Iraq a different, but hardly lesser, tragedy was under way as the Christian community of Mosul poured out of the city where they have lived for 1,600 years in search of refuge.
The organisation we are invited to call the Islamic Caliphate (Isis) possesses the virtue of clarity, if nothing else. Hitler’s genocidal plans for the Jews became public knowledge only years after he came to power. The Soviet gulags were for a long time shrouded in secrecy. But Isis has never made any bones about either means or ends.
The ends: to establish a worldwide Islamic state based on the most reductive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam. The means: the elimination of everyone who believes something different and refuses to convert.
Since their capture of Mosul on 10 June, these fanatics have wasted no time slaughtering large numbers of brother Muslims who follow the Shia tradition. They boast of having “executed” 1,700 Shia soldiers n the town of Tikrit.
But there was no reason to suppose they would look more benignly on other types of “infidels”, and now they have turned their attention to the remnants of the other communities that until recently made Iraq a rich patchwork of ancient beliefs.
So it was that on Friday the Christians of Mosul, a community of thousands settled in the city since the early days of Christianity, were given 24 hours to either convert or face the sword. A third alternative was to pay jizya, an Islamic tax historically levied on religious minorities.
But only a brave or gullible “infidel” would put much faith in protection of that sort, and Christians as well as Yazidis and Shabaks, two other Iraqi minorities, are now fleeing for their lives.
For the Christians this is not a new catastrophe but rather the consolidation and systemisation of a terrible process of extirpation from their historic homelands that has been under way for years. It is nonetheless remarkable that the West has so far had nothing in particular to say about it.
The reason is that the Middle East policy of the US and the UK is in a total mess. If the Iraq war of 2003 was motivated by the absurd notion that Saddam was allied with al-Qa’ida, and justified by the erroneous claim that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, the more recent support for opponents of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad – which, but for an intelligent vote by the House of Commons, could easily have tipped us into another counter-productive war – is now beginning to look just as misconceived.
President Assad is unquestionably a murderous and ruthless tyrant. But as an Alawite, a variety of Shia, he was at least protective to Syria’s minorities, however horrific the rest of his rule.
Meanwhile, the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, in whom we placed our rash hopes of converting Syria into a pluralistic democracy, have dwindled into impotence, their role taken by Isis – a well-funded band of compulsive killers in control of a new state bigger than Great Britain that sprawls over large areas of both Syria and Iraq.
This may be the first time that an up-and-coming power has advertised its genocidal intentions, while starting to carry them out. How these monsters are to be confronted is not yet clear, but confronted they must be.