The Fate of This Town Illustrates the Plight of Minorities in The Middle East story and photography by Flavius mihaies

November through December 2016 I reported on the road from Erbil to Mosul—about 50 east to west miles in northern Iraq.

I spent time on the road with the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit, NPU (first flag in this photo), a small Assyrian Christian former militia composed of locals fighting the Islamic State and now under Baghdad's command, whose main role is to secure Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain liberated from the jihadists.

From the NPU's training camp, in al-Qosh, I headed to Qaraqosh—"capital of Iraq's Christians" (map below)—recently liberated from the Islamic State. We drove through checkpoints manned by the various armed groups making up the ongoing offensive to wrest control of Mosul from the Islamic State.

The Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU) was formed last year in response to the invasion of the Nineveh Plain by the Islamic State in late 2014, following the fall of Mosul, Iraq that June.

St Mary al-Tahira, the main church in Qaraqosh, Iraq, shattered by the Islamic State. Most of town's inhabitants (about 50,000) fled when the jihadists invaded.

The jihadists used the church as a shooting range during their occupation of the town for about two years. It was recently liberated by the Iraqi army, assisted by Assyrian Christians, the NPU.

Empty cartridges litter the floor of St Mary al-Tahira, Qaraqosh's main church, the Islamic State used as a shooting range.

The jihadists burned, destroyed or desecrated Qaraqosh’s ten churches, while they left the only mosque untouched, NPU security forces securing the town told me. You can also see a 360 degree photo tour, here.

Islamic State's slogans on the walls of St Mary al-Tahira, Qaraqosh's main church. The jihadists used the church as a shooting range.

Islamic State fighters burned St Mary al-Tahira's religious books in the church's courtyard.

Inside the church.

Iraqi Assyrian Christians—1.4-million strong before the war, are now estimated at around 200,000—trace their presence thousand years prior to Christianity’s founding, and they preserve ancient customs including the Assyrian language, which Christian villages and towns in the Nineveh Plain still consider their mother tongues. If Assyrians Christians and other minorities were to disappear, the loss for Iraq will go beyond the immediate loss of life to the identity of the country. Iraq will no longer be seen as a culturally diverse society, home to ancient religions and rich cultures.

Note: The Assyrian name for Qaraqosh is Bakhdida.

Flavius Mihaies is a consultant at the World Bank and an independent journalist. In 2014, 2015 and 2016 he traveled to both Syriawhere he visited Damascus, Homs and the Kurdish-controlled region in northwest Syria, and Iraqin towns recently liberated from the Islamic State.

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