Iraqi Christians head to Saint Joseph church in Arbil on August 6, 2015, during a rally marking the frist anniversary of an Islamic State group offensive on Christian-populated areas in the Nineveh provinceIraqi Christians head to Saint Joseph church in Arbil on August 6, 2015, during a rally marking the frist anniversary of an Islamic State group offensive on Christian-populated areas in the Nineveh province (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)
Zartek (Iraq) (AFP) - Christian clerics prayed in the ruins of a monastery not far from jihadist positions in northern Iraq Thursday to mark a year since the exodus of Iraq's Christians from nearby ancestral lands.
"We want the good people to hear our prayers from this place so they hurry and liberate our areas as quickly as possible," Yohanna Boutros Moshe, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, told AFP.
Moshe led a small group of clerics in prayer in the hilltop ruins of a fourth-century monastery that lies in a position of Kurdish peshmerga forces.
On June 9 last year, the Islamic State group launched a massive offensive that forced hundreds of thousands to flee.
The following day, the jihadist group seized Mosul, the country's second city, which was home to significant community of Christians.
Many were forced from their homes two months later, when IS expanded further by attacking Kurdish-held positions, including the Nineveh plain.
The region stretches from Mosul towards Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, and was home to the bulk of Iraq's Christian community, one of the world's oldest.
"It is dear to our hearts because we received it from our sons who shed their blood until they preserved this area and we are proud of them," the archbishop said.
The monastery where the symbolic prayer was held is the closest point to Qaraqosh, which was Iraq's largest Christian town until IS seized it last August.
"I feel sorrow and pain until this hour; I feel as though I am drunk and do not know until now why I was forced from my area because we did nothing wrong or attack anyone and we were peaceful with everyone," he said.
The Nineveh plain was also home to members of other Iraqi minorities, such as the Yazidis, Shabak and Kakai.
Other waves of violence in recent years have already driven many Iraqi Christians into exile. There were around 1.5 million in 2003 but fewer than a third remain.
- Low morale -
Last year's violence led many of the newly displaced Christians to seek to emigrate, a trend clerics in Iraq and elsewhere fear could be a fatal blow to Christian presence in the country.
"Estimates are that 50,000 Christians... have left Iraq" over the past year, said Benoit Faraj Camurat, who heads the French aid group Fraternite en Irak and accompanied the prelate.
He said most had gone to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while smaller numbers had resettled in Europe and other Western countries.
The peshmerga, backed by air strikes from a US-led international coalition, have recaptured some land in northern Iraq.
Yet the fightback has been sluggish in recent months and the focus of efforts to retake territory lost to IS has focused on Iraq's western province of Anbar.
Residents of Mosul and outlying areas had hoped Baghdad and Arbil would make a big push to wrest the region back from IS as early as late last year.
But more than a year after IS took control of large parts of Iraq, many analysts say the fight for Mosul is still a long way away.
"Their current situation is that they live in camps, some in sort of mobile homes, others in unfinished houses," said Camurat.
"And really their morale is very low... Psychologically waiting one year without knowing what will happen to you is something very difficult," he said.
Camurat's NGO has set up a bakery in the largest camp for displaced Christians in Arbil that not only produces 9,000 loaves of bread daily but also provides employment.