Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas in Mosul for the first time since the defeat of ISIS

Iraqi Christian children attend a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. | Reuters/Ari Jalal

Christians have gathered at a church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday to celebrate Christmas for the first time since the defeat of the Islamic State terror group.

At least 100 Christians attended the Christmas service held at Saint Paul's Church, which is currently the only functioning church in Mosul. According to the Independent, large numbers of Muslims also went to the church to show their support for their friends and neighbors.

Outside the church, a portrait of a Christian killed under ISIS rule was displayed to serve as a painful reminder of the city's recent history.

The Iraqi government had declared full victory against ISIS earlier this month following a three-year battle with the militants, resulting in extensive damage to Christian enclaves.

An estimated 70 to 80 Christian families have reportedly returned to Mosul since the end of the conflict, and more and expected to arrive if the Iraqi security forces are able to successfully demonstrate that they will be able to protect the city from being recaptured by extremist groups.

During ISIS occupation of Mosul, the practice of Christian traditions in public was dangerous. The terrorist group had forced Christians to either convert to Islam, pay tax or be faced with death, prompting them to flee the city.

Christians who have gathered at Saint Paul's stressed the importance of establishing their place in the city's future following three years of persecution.

"Our faith and our hope was to be here to evangelise on our earth and in our town," Father Thabet Habib told The Telegraph. "This pushed us to come here and to celebrate the mass and to tell all the world that we are here as Christians," he added.

Despite the victory against ISIS, some Christians in other parts of Iraq do not seem to be hopeful about their future in the country.

In Teleskof, which is said to be one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families have refrained from attending Mass altogether.

"We usually celebrate with our entire family," said Umm Rita, while she was preparing a traditional Christmas Day dish at her home. "But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I've never met have all moved away," she added.

Community leaders in Teleskof have estimated that more than 7,000 of its former residents are now scattered across Iraq and its semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the U.S., Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

"Our community has been gutted," said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee. "But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq," he added.