ERBIL, Iraq (AFP) — Between bombs, destruction and fears for the future, returning home remains a distant prospect for the Christians of northern Iraq displaced by the Islamic State jihadist group.

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Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward Mosul to retake it from IS in an operation that is now in its second week, and some Christian villages have already been retaken.

“I came to deliver a message of hope: Yes, there is indeed a future for the Christians of Iraq, and it is for us to build together,” Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told a gathering of hundreds of the faithful at a church in Kurdish regional capital Erbil.

Bartella, a Christian town in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, has been recaptured, and there has been fighting in the area of Qaraqosh, formerly Iraq’s largest Christian town.

But many displaced Christians are still waiting to return home.

Displaced Iraqi Christians in Erbil have closely followed television coverage in the hope of seeing their homes, and have taken to the streets to celebrate several times.

“Whatever happens, I want to return to my home in Qaraqosh,” said Shamo Boles Bahi, 70 years old.

But on land on the outskirts of Erbil that belongs to the Chaldean church, new housing for Christians is under construction — an indication of the future that many of them will face.

“Although the villages have been retaken by the army, it will be six months, maybe a year, before we can return to live there,” said Mundhir Rufain Yussef, the engineer overseeing the construction of the new housing.

“The houses (in the villages) are damaged, there is currently no water or electricity, and mines are everywhere,” said Yussef, himself a displaced Christian who is a native of Bartella.

Life on hold

“Today, I received a picture of my house. The facade does not look too damaged, but I am worried about the back,” he said, adding that his neighbor’s house was destroyed in the fighting.

“The future of the Christians in Iraq is uncertain,” he said.

In addition to the issue of reconstruction, security also remains a major concern.

Yvette Hanna, 19, recalled the dramatic conditions of her escape: “Being awakened in the night, having to leave everything behind and flee, praying to get out safely.”

She wants to return home, “but what guarantees are there that I will be safe, that it will not happen again?”

Iraqi Christians attend a mass at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on October 25, 2016. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

Iraqi Christians attend a mass at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on October 25, 2016. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

Returning home is vital for the future of Christians in Iraq, whose presence dates back 2,000 years, but they have seen their numbers dwindle to just a few hundred thousand due to an exodus sparked by decades of violence and sanctions.

“Since the summer of 2014, Christian society has been on stand-by,” said Jean, a French volunteer who travelled to Erbil to help displaced Christians.

“Weddings, births are postponed to await the return of the displaced to their villages,” Jean said.

Some also fear that the volume of aid given to Christians by the international community has created a “culture of handouts” that will be difficult for them to escape.

“We pray for unity and reconciliation because without this, our country will fall back into civil war, and we Christians have everything to lose,” said Wael Ablahad, a seminary student.

“But I’m confident: I studied in Mosul and I’ll be ordained a priest next year, Mosul is where I want to be posted to serve the Church.”