The pews are charred by fire, and the altar is no longer standing. You can hear the broken windows crunching under your feet.
"They burned the church, and they destroyed the tabernacle and everything," Father Salar Kajo says of this 18th century church.
Some 6,000 people used to live in Batnaya, a small Christian village in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. Today it’s a ghost town. Everywhere you look, buildings are flattened. Roads have been ripped up by explosions. Rubble has piled up on the streets. The only noise we hear is that of Kurdish troops firing off their guns in the distance.
For more than two years, ISIS occupied towns and villages north and east of Mosul — a vast region home to some of the world's oldest Christian communities and churches. When the terrorist group overran Batnaya and the surrounding villages in August 2014, 12,000 Christian residents fled in a matter of days. Most escaped to camps and cramped apartments in Iraqi Kurdistan. Others fled the country, many of them to Western Europe and the United States.
A Christian exodus in the cradle of Christianity
Although the vast majority of victims of terrorist attacks worldwide are Muslim, Christians have also been targeted by Islamic extremists in the Middle East. In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion and the toppling of Iraq's secular dictator opened the door to Islamic extremists. In the years since, Al Qaeda and its franchises have targeted Christian churches and priests. Once a significant minority in Iraq, the Christian population has drastically shrunk, from more than 1.3 million in 2003 to fewer than 300,000 today.
"This was a silent persecution. It occurred without much notice. The Church was afraid to talk about it," Nina Shea, director of Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said.
As part of its bid to erase Christianity from Iraq, ISIS destroyed the town's Christian imagery. Cemeteries were decimated. Churches destroyed. During our tour of Batnaya, we came across graffiti that read, "no place for the cross in the land of Islam."
'We need everything'
Kurdish troops, known as peshmerga, drove ISIS from the area in October 2016 with the help of American special forces. In the months that followed, residents have slowly begun to move back into neighboring Teleskuf. When we visited in April, about 270 families had returned — a fraction of the town's former population. They lacked essential services like electricity and running water, let alone schools and hospitals. Most of all, Teleskuf residents told us they wanted security.
"The most important thing we want is safety, so that the rest of the people can return to our village," Teleskuf mayor Anwar Ganozi told us over lunch. They are one of the only families in Teleskuf with a generator to power their stove.
"This region needs everything. We are asking the countries of the world to help the village of Teleskuf in particular."
Living in no man's land
The ethnic tensions that have long-plagued Iraq also complicate things. Nearly 80 percent of Iraqis are Arab; the rest are Kurds. These Christians — mostly Chaldean Catholics — are of Assyrian descent and speak their own language, Aramaic. They live in disputed territory that both the Arabs and Kurds claim as their own. Teleskuf residents say neither group has come to their aid.
“It’s that uncertainty that hangs like a cloud over everything,” explained Steve Rasche, an American attorney who serves as aid coordinator for the Archdiocese of Erbil and project coordinator for the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee.
"It’s not so much that they’re being persecuted, they’re just outside the priority of both governments."
Rasche estimates rebuilding Teleskuf will cost more than $5 million. Batnaya could cost as much as $30 million. So far, church leaders say they haven't received any rebuilding assistance from the Iraqi government or the United Nations.
With the reconstruction of Mosul alone estimated to cost as much as $1 billion, there's only a limited amount of aid to go around. Much of it is distributed through a fund managed by the U.N., the government of Iraq, the U.S., and other international donors. According to an official from USAID, the State Department's aid agency, local governments inform the committee on how best to stabilize liberated areas. Shea says Christian communities in Nineveh lack the political power necessary to do this.
Instead, she suggests the international community will focus its rebuilding efforts on preventing the next ISIS.
"If they’re going to give any aid, it’s going to be to the Sunni areas that produced ISIS," Shea said.
On the day we visited Teleskuf, the mayor and his family invited us to join them for a church service that evening. Sitting on folding chairs in a cramped room above the church, Father Salar led the room in traditional Aramaic hymns. Downstairs, volunteers worked to repair stained glass windows and broken pews.
After the service, Father Salar told us he feared Christianity could one day be driven from the region entirely. He said he prays daily that the rest of his congregation will return to Iraq.
"You saw, the church was full, no? We have the power of the faith ... If we have God, it means we can start the life here in Teleskuf."
See more related Circa stories:
Meet the priest racing to save Iraq's ancient history from ISIS
What it's like inside the Christian village where Iraqis have escaped from ISIS
ISIS taught this 8-year-old how to detonate bombs in school
Videography for this piece by Yad Deen.