Pope's Iraqi flock faces dilemma: to stay or to go

I'm the only one left, says Thanoun Yahya, out of 12 or 13 Christian families in this neighborhood of Mosul, in Iraq.

Jihadist militants occupied his home for three years when they ruled the city. They left this graffiti, "Islamic State endures", on his front gate.

He leaves it here out of defiance, but also as a reminder of the precarious existence of the Iraqi Christians.

"We left the city for three or four years, so in the beginning we felt foreign, we felt like we were coming back to a different country."

Pope Francis visits the country, including Mosul, from March 5, highlighting the stark choice facing a dwindling community - to stay or to go.

Yahya and his wife Basma, who'd fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, returned six months after Islamic State were driven from Mosul.

But the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians began before their rule - from the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the rise of al Qaeda.

The Christians now number some 300,000 - down from about 1.5 million.

[Basma saying:] "When we were children, we lived in peace, it was not about who was Christian or who was Muslim, we were living in peace, visiting each other. There was security."

[Yahya saying:] "But after 2004, we got scared to go to church, we didn't know when death would take us."

Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, has just one functioning church now, where Yahya's sons help out.

Firas, his eldest, finds little more than a day a week of casual labour and fears for his future in the city.

"I was brought up in Mosul and really like living here. But if there is no other way, I will have to move to Erbil to get married and find stability, I will be forced to go and live there," he said.

Christians here face a stark choice - return to damaged homes, resettle elsewhere in the country or migrate abroad.

Many see the first ever papal visit to Iraq as welcome recognition of how much they've suffered for their beliefs.

Video Transcript

THANOUN YAHYA: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

- "I'm the only one left," says Thanoun Yahya, "out of 12 or 13 Christian families in this neighborhood of Mosul, in Iraq." Jihadist militants occupied his home for three years when they ruled the city. They left this graffiti, "Islamic State endures," on his front gate. He leaves it here out of defiance, but also as a reminder of the precarious existence of the Iraqi Christians.

THANOUN YAHYA: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

INTERPRETER 1: We left the city for three or four years. So in the beginning, we felt foreign. We felt like we were coming back to a different country.

- Pope Francis visits the country, including Mosul from March 5, highlighting the stark choice facing a dwindling community to stay or to go. Yahya and his wife, Basma, who'd fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, returned six months after Islamic State were driven from Mosul. But the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians began before their rule, from the US-led invasion in 2003 and the rise of al Qaeda. The Christians now number some 300,000, down from about 1.5 million.

BASMA YAHYA: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

INTERPRETER 2: When we were children, we lived in peace. It was not about who was Christian or who was Muslim. We were living in peace visiting each other. There was security.

THANOUN YAHYA: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

INTERPRETER 1: But after 2004, we got scared to go to church. We didn't know when death would take us.

- Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, has just one functioning church now, where Yahya's sons help out. Firas, his eldest, finds little more than a day a week of casual labor and fears for his future in the city.

FIRAS YAHYA: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

INTERPRETER 3: I was brought up in Mosul and really like living here, but if there is no other way, I will have to go to Erbil to get married and find stability. I will be forced to go and live there.

- Christians here face a stark choice, return to damaged homes, resettle elsewhere in the country, or migrate abroad. Many see the first ever papal visit to Iraq as a welcome recognition of how much they've suffered for their beliefs.