A glimpse of a 'disappearing' people

  • A lamp shop at the entrance of the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa, in Erbil, Iraq.
  • A cafe in the center of Medina, in Erbil, Iraq.
  • Street scene in the center of Medina, Erbil, in Iraq.
  • Christians celebrate Christmas at a Catholic church in Erbil, Iraq, only a 30 minute drive from an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant stronghold.
  • Young refugees gather at a commercial center in Ankawa, in Erbil, Iraq.
  • A typical Kurdish wedding couple in Erbil, Iraq.
  • Men smoke outside the Saint Joseph Chaldean church in the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa in Erbil, Iraq.
  • Christmas celebrations take place in Erbil, Iraq, despite Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants’ efforts to wipe out Iraqi Christian culture.
  • Christian refugees who fled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants celebrate Christmas in a commercial center under construction in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, Iraq.
  • Men relax at the Noble Hotel in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.
  • Christian refugees who fled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants celebrate Christmas in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, Iraq.
  • Christian refugees celebrate Christmas in Ankawa, Irbil, in Iraq.
  • A partially constructed commercial center in the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa, Erbil, in Iraq.
  • Christians celebrating Christmas at a Catholic church in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
  • Kurdish women shop for carpets in a market in central Erbil, Iraq.
  • Men walk through the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa at night, with the Saint George Chaldean church in the background.
  • A restaurant in Ankawa, Erbil, in northern Iraq.
  • A young refugee stands outside a commercial center in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.
  • Street scene in Ankawa, Erbil, in northern Iraq.
  • Children carring food for refugees in Ankawa, in Erbil, Iraq.
  • Christians celebrate Christmas night at the Saint Joseph Chaldean church in Ankawa, in Erbil, Iraq.

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Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, in northern Iraq, is home to tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have fled the threat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants who have launched an offensive throughout much of Iraq and Syria in recent months. It was the protection of Erbil that President Obama stated as one of the main reasons for launching air strikes in the area last summer, as the U.S. was drawn into its first significant combat operations in the region since 2003 to protect the oil-rich region from ISIS.

Erbil has also become home to tens of thousands of refugees from the Nineveh Valley, forced to flee their homes by the same forces that prompted U.S. air strikes in August. Iraq’s Christians have faced increased persecution, fleeing for the west. Many have ended up in the largely Christian community of Ankawa, on the outskirts of Erbil, on their way out of the country, a place that photographer Guillermo Cervera traveled to in December. A mere 50 miles or so from Mosul, the largest city in Iraq currently controlled by ISIS militants, the Iraqi Christians who make the up the majority of Ankawa’s population celebrated Christmas in partially constructed commercial centers and in tents in the gardens of some churches. “With the refugees not only end two thousand years of Christianity in the valley of Nineveh but also five thousand years of Assyrian culture,” Cervera told msnbc. “They are the heirs of Mesopotamia, and they are disappearing.”

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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