On Christmas Eve church bells rang for the first time in two years on Christmas in Bartella, a predominantly Christian town outside Mosul.
Even though the Mar Shimoni church has been badly damaged by ISIS, it was filled with Christians who returned to their town for this occasion.
For the most part, they would return afterwards to their places of refuge in Ainkawa, the Christian enclave of the Kurdish capital Erbil, where they fled when ISIS entered their town in August 2014.
Not only because they had since found homes, work and income, and not even because their houses have been looted, or have been used as bomb factories and pharmacies, or damaged by tunnel building or air strikes.
The reason why hardly anyone has in the past two months returned to the liberated Christian towns of Nineveh was clearly illustrated by the gunmen that guarded churchgoers on Christmas Day from the roofs in Qaraqosh, where hundreds attended mass in the Mar Yohanna Church.
ISIS had left its graffiti there, as a warning for those daring to consider returning, written inside the church, declaring that ‘the Islamic State remains and extends’.
Even though the ISIS state has lost over half of its territory in Iraq and is on the way to be evicted completely soon, the threat of its radical faith remains, as most Christians are very aware of.
With dozens who were left behind when most Christians fled in August 2014 still missing, they realise all too well that amongst those roaming and looting their towns were Arabs from the surrounding villages; people they knew, and they even might have mixed with socially.
It’s the broken trust that prevents them from going home, as even though they don’t know exactly who was involved with ISIS and who did not get their hands bloodied, they are no longer able to trust any of them.
And that does not even apply to the Salafists groups only, for in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad attackers – presumably Shiite radicals, acting on a recent one-sided law that prohibited the sale of alcohol in Iraq – killed and wounded Christian liquor sellers.
The Kurdish president Masoud Barzani has pledged the Christians that found refuge in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that they are very welcome and will be protected, telling them that they are very much part of the fabric of the society in the region.
But even though safety and aid was offered, around half of those who fled from the Nineveh Plains in the past two years made their way into asylum in the West, stating they will never feel safe again at home.
This very emotion has led the Assyrian Bishop Mar Awa Royel to call for a free and autonomous Assyria in Iraq, as the only way to ensure the survival of his flock in Iraq.
The Assyrian Confederation of Europe announced that it will work in 2017 for “the Assyrians in the homeland (to) establish their own region to secure their life, culture, history and future” and called on human rights organisations for assistance.
At the same time, the main Kurdish party KDP has called on Christians to decide soon whether they want to join the Kurdistan Region or the State of Iraq.
Yet even the threats of ISIS have not been able to unite the different denominations of Christians in Iraq, with many of them recently forming militias to guard the safety of their own group.
Even though the call for a Christian region is not new as it dates from before ISIS, it is closely related to the need for safety.
It is connected to the recent call for international protection; many Christians say they will only return to rebuild their cities if the international community guarantees their safety there.
A special United Nations’ force on the ground, or a no-fly zone – the ideas about how this protection can be offered exactly are still fluid and needs to be developed.
For most Christians should be able to go back to their historical homeland as their return is one of the few possibilities to safeguard their continued presence in Iraq.
If we are serious about Iraq as a multiethnic, multi-religious and multicultural country, this call cannot be neglected, nor can we agree to the dangerous formation of new militias that could in the future lead to infighting and new conflicts.
Clearly, if we want to be able to keep celebrating Christmas together in Iraq, this should be treated as a main issue that the world community urgently needs to solve in the wake of an ISIS defeat.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.