The terror group known as ISIS has carried out its brutality against communities in Iraq and Syria dominated by Christians and other minority groups. However, one village in northern Iraq has defied the odds and continues to thrive despite the ongoing threats to its way of life.
In an exclusive report by Alex Potter of NPR, the ancient Christian village of al-Qosh, located in northern Iraq, was just six miles away from fighting between ISIS militants and Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga. Although the village residents fled back in August, some of them were brave enough to return after finding out ISIS never occupied their town.
"Christians have been here in the Nineveh plains for thousands of years," local Syriac language teacher Athra Kado said. "It would be a tragedy if we just disappeared."
According to Potter, the Peshmerga warned the residents of al-Qosh back on Aug. 6 that their lives were in danger from ISIS militants. This left al-Qosh "a ghost town."
"[The Peshmerga] threw a barricade across the road just outside al-Qosh, but we knew that wouldn't stop [ISIS]," Kado said.
However, Potter reported that for whatever reason, ISIS stopped its advance to al-Qosh and never tried to occupy the village. This led to the village coming back to life.
"After a while, the residents felt secure enough to return and it has been buzzing with activity this spring," Potter wrote. "The markets are open, the schools are running, and families are picnicking on the hills overlooking al-Qosh."
Potter added that al-Qosh has previously served as a safe haven for both Christians and those fleeing violence from other parts in Iraq, even before the rise of ISIS.
"In 2008 and 2010, al-Qosh became a safe haven for civilians fleeing turbulence in the Mosul area, about 30 miles to the south," Potter wrote. "The same thing happened again before and after the ISIS threat last August."
However, Potter observed that the residents of al-Qosh have set up their own militia just in case ISIS attempted to make a move against them. The militia included Kado and his friends.
"We come up here to picnic, to be with our friends," engineer Riven Nafe said. "This is our town; we don't want to give it up."
According to Potter, there were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, or about 8 percent of the population, before the United States intervened and took out Saddam Hussein back in 2003. Now estimates have placed that number below 400,000 Christians, which is part of a larger trend across the Middle East.
"In the mid-20th century, Christians were estimated to be about 20 percent of the Middle East's population," Potter wrote. "Today, it's 5 percent at most."
Local priest Gabrial Gorgis told Potter that the world had a duty to protect Christians and other minorities in places like al-Qosh.
"Look around at our history," Gorgis said. "We have been here for thousands of years. Wouldn't it be a shame to the world and future generations to lose us?"