Mosul's Christians are celebrating their third Christmas in exile, but this year there is new hope that the beleaguered community will soon be able to return home for the first time in two and a half years. The offensive to retake Iraq's second city from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) began in mid-October.
Shortly afterwards, Iraqi forces and local militias succeeded in driving Isil out of the historic Christian town of Qaraqosh on Iraq's Nineveh plain, 10 miles east of Mosul, which was captured by the jihadist group in the summer of 2014. "The liberation of Qaraqosh combined with Christmas is like a rebirth for us," said Monk Wissam Marzina, 43, from the town's Brotherhood Jesus's Salvation Monastery.
"But we are not altogether happy because many challenges lie ahead." The town is without water, power and still lies dangerously close to the front lines with Isil. Like other towns nearby, Qaraqosh lies in battle-scarred ruins, its shop shutters broken and twisted and the contents of homes upended and smashed.
A small percentage of the town's 5,000 homes were totally destroyed in the fight, but most were burnt and ransacked by Isil fighters before they fled, leaving devastation for residents returning. Tonight, displaced Christians will hold a torch-lit procession through Erbil, the capital of the nearby Kurdistan Region, and tomorrow morning, a mass will be held at the Mar Youhanna church in Qaraqosh.
"The idea of the mass is to let people know that we are here and we are back," Mr Marzina said. Traditionally this mass would be held at night, but it is currently too dangerous to venture into the town after dark. No one has returned to live there permanently and the town is only populated by Christian fighters, the Iraqi police and army.
Mr Marzina recently went back to spend a night at his old home, the monastery connected to Qaraqosh's Syriac Catholic Saint Yacob church. "Everything was burnt, our books, documents and everything in the church." The belfry was destroyed, as was the side room that they used for choral services in happier times. Instead, he found thin sleeping mattresses and bullets left over by Isil fighters.
The records of the monk's former lives at the monastery were all ruined: all the books, pictures, and lists of daily drills, activities and meetings, as well as the documents of the founding of the monastery's order. "Christmas can be celebrated anywhere on earth, but there is something about the taste of the earth in our city that we lost," he said.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of Iraq's Christians fled because of deteriorating security and persecution by jihadists. Now, the small Christian communities that remain are deeply worried about their future in Iraq.
Yasmeen Raad, 28, from Qaraqosh, works as an accountant at a hotel in Erbil. When she found out that her home town had been liberated from Isil, she took part in days of celebrations, parties, and lunches with families and friends and is now planning to go back tomorrow for the Syriac Catholic Mass.
"We want to go back -- all of our memories, everything is there," she said. Her home in Qaraqosh was destroyed by Isil militants. "We are worried about the future," she said, "Let's see what will happen in 2017. We were very upset -- we never expected this to happen to our city."
By Cathy Otten