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From a population of 1.5 million — Assyro-Chaldean Catholics and non-Catholics, Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, and other minorities — before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians today are estimated around a quarter million, or just over half of 1 percent of the overall Iraqi population.

Throughout a decade of targeted killings and kidnappings in Baghdad and Mosul, emigration continued to impact the Christian population of Iraq. Many who remained chose to relocate to their ancestral communities in the Nineveh Valley, turning these once rural villages into thriving towns with shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants. However, the two-year occupation by ISIS — and the ensuing destruction and looting of these towns — drove many to leave for Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and, from there, to seek asylum in Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States.

To visit Iraq today is to encounter a people struggling to rebuild — and struggling, as well, with the question of whether they should even remain in Iraq.

Roughly 65 miles away from Dohuk, church bells ring to mark the beginning of another Sunday Divine Liturgy in Qaraqosh, currently the largest Christian enclave in Iraq. The main church tower of the fourth-century Syriac Catholic Church of Sts. Behnam and Sarah lies in pieces to the side, attesting to the brutality of the conflict that had left much of the town burned and destroyed. But the sight of hundreds of people of all ages and walks of life neatly dressed and flocking into the church — vibrant amid the scorched walls, broken statues and ruined icons — shows a returning population determined to revive their town.

Heavily armed security members of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian militia formed after the invasion by ISIS, have blocked the streets with military trucks to protect churchgoers, reflecting a heightened sense of vigilance and alarm. The presence of security cameras on lampposts near churches is another sign people fear they are being targeted.

Safety aside, people seem most preoccupied with pressing financial needs.

“Giving should be regarded as an act of sharing and not of charity,” says the Rev. Awfi Ignatius in his homily, alluding to the economic difficulties faced by the people of Qaraqosh since their return a couple of years ago. The Divine Liturgy is being held in a makeshift tent adjacent to the church, which is still undergoing restoration.

Outside the church, three 30-something men with groomed beards and elegant, tightly pressed shirts stop to talk. Despite their appearances, they say that even after returning from displacement, they have been struggling to make ends meet, doing odd jobs as salesmen or working in construction. They all express the desire to leave Iraq. Two are hoping that their relatives will help sponsor their immigration to France. The other says he jumped on a boat in Turkey a few years ago to try and cross to Europe, but was caught before reaching Greece; he was returned to Iraq. He says he may try again, but this time through legal channels.

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