In Iraq, two decades of back-to-back conflicts have left ancient Christian communities that were once a vibrant and integral part of the landscape scattered and in ruins.
Iraq was estimated to have nearly 1.5 million Christians before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. They date back to the first centuries of the religion and include Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian churches.
Now, church officials estimate only a few hundred thousand, or even less, remain within Iraq’s borders. The rest are scattered across the globe, resettling in far-flung places like Australia, Canada and Sweden, as well as neighboring countries.
Many of those who remain in Iraq feel abandoned, bitter and helpless, some wary of neighbors with whom they once shared feasts and religious celebrations, Muslim and Christian alike.
The Vatican for years has voiced concern about the flight of Christians from the Middle East, driven out by war, poverty, persecution and discrimination. Pope Francis hopes that by visiting Iraq — the first visit by a sitting pontiff — sent a message of hope and solidarity.
Here’s a look at disasters Iraq’s Christians have endured, from Saddam’s ouster to the brutal campaign by Islamic State militants:
U.S. INVASION AND RISE OF MILITANCY
Christians in Iraq enjoyed protection and near-equal rights with Iraq’s Muslim majority under Saddam but were among the first groups targeted amid the breakdown in security and sectarian bloodbath that prevailed for years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew him.
Read more: AP