Two decades after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the country's dwindling Christian community continues to fight for survival.
Christians from the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac churches have ancient roots in the Nineveh Plain of northern Iraq, but the war made religious minorities increasingly vulnerable.
Tens of thousands were forced from their villages into exile following the 2003 invasion, and the situation only worsened when ISIS seized control of nearby Mosul in 2014.
Today, concerns are rising that Christians in Iraq face extinction.
Since the invasion, Iraq's Christian population has reportedly diminished by more than 80 per cent — from an estimated 1.5 million to 250,000.
A population database from the Shlama Foundation, an NGO based in Ankawa-Erbil, estimates that only 141,346 Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs are still in Iraq today.
Efforts aimed at preserving the culture of Christians in Iraq have included a push to establish a region exclusively for minorities in the Nineveh Plain.
The US Congress has even tried to intervene, and groups are calling for Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac representation in the Iraqi parliament.
Steve Oshana — executive director of A Demand for Action, a non-profit focused on the rights of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs in the Middle East — believes a safe haven or province in the Ninevah Plain is necessary.
“The only way Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac Christians and other minorities can remain in their ancestral homeland, which at some level is a prerequisite to their survival, is with some semblance of self-determination and self-protection,” Mr Oshana told The National.
“That means land, independent security, and borders wherein some self governance exists. A province is a legal, sustainable way to do so, and the Iraqi government has already formalised their agreement on the matter.”
Located north-east of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, the Nineveh Plain is part of the country's Nineveh governorate.
In January 2014, the Iraqi government initiated the process of creating a province in the Nineveh Plain to be used for the protection of religious minorities.
But the formation of the province was halted after ISIS seized Mosul in June that same year.
The city's fall prompted widespread calls for a safe haven for religious minorities, as 125,000 Christians were forced to flee their ancestral lands and abandon the city.
Yazidis, another minority group, faced the same fate, with about 200,000 forced to flee.
In 2018, the unsuccessful Nineveh Plain Restoration Act was introduced in the US Congress. It called for the establishment of a self-governing province in the Nineveh Plain that would “facilitate the safe return of displaced peoples” in the region.
Athra Kado, a central committee member for the Baghdad branch of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, spoke to The National from Iraq about the proposal.
He said plans for a province in the Ninevah Plain were met with opposition, particularly in 2014 by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which wanted the Kurdistan Regional Government to become part of it.
“It was stopped then, and here we are today,” Mr Kado said.
He added that the province would still be a part of Iraq like any other and home to other minorities in the Nineveh Plain.
The Shlama Foundation told The National that since the fall of Mosul, many Iraqi Christians have returned to their homes and progress has been made in the villages of the Nineveh Plains.
“Just five years ago, after years of ISIS displacement, many Iraqi Christians from the Nineveh Plains never thought they would be able to return to their homes in Hamdaniya district,” the organisation reported.
“But many who did return and witnessed the destruction and devastation, stayed, hoping for a better future. With international funding, most of the villages in the Nineveh Plains have seen much progress.
“Villages have been restored. Churches have been repaired. Roads have been fixed. Homes and businesses have been rehabilitated.”
Despite such progress, Mr Oshana pointed to allegations of Iraqi Christians having their land illegally taken from them through expropriations.
In August, five members of the US Congress signed a letter addressed to Rashad Husain, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, on the expropriation of land from Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and other minorities.
“The loss of lands and lack of faith in authorities risks further emigration of these groups in Iraq,” the letter warned.
Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac political representation in Iraq's parliament is vital to advancing the communities interests, advocates say.
“The true representation of Assyrians helps to push for certain laws and defend Assyrians’ rights,” Karmella Borashan, director and board member of the Assyrian Aid Society of America, told The National.
Mr Kado said efforts were under way to change election laws, and the modifications would ensure that seats reserved for Christians in parliament are only voted on by members of the community.
“The next election we are basically working to change the laws so our people will be the only ones to vote for these seats,” said Mr Kado.
In previous elections, non-minority voters have backed candidates for minority-quota seats and ultimately outvoted candidates believed to have the best interests of the community.
In Iraq's 2018 parliamentary elections, seats reserved for Christians were won by non-Christian parties.
“The land grabbing is a loss for our people and the loss of seats in the parliament really put our people in a desperate situation of having a voice,” added Ms Borashan.
The Shlama Foundation and Mr Kado highlighted additional issues facing Christians, such as the presence of militia groups.
“Lawless militias from Christian-dominant villages in Nineveh must be removed. These militia groups intimidate Christians and decrease the sense of security in their villages,” the organisation said.
The organisation said international governments and political leaders must pressure the Iraqi government to enact laws that promote the culture, language, history, identity and rights of ethno-religious minorities.
“The US government needs to work with both the federal Iraq and KRG governments in order to achieve this as Christians live in villages and cities ruled by both governments,” it said.
Mr Kado said Iraqi Christians do not have a future anywhere outside of their homeland.
“If we go to America, anywhere else, we won’t be Iraqi Christians any more,” he said. “We will be Americans, Germans, Christians.
“We won’t have a future anywhere else — that’s what I believe. That why we try to work to have a future here.”