Iraqi Christians pray close to front line of Islamic State attacks

Iraqi Christians attended a church service just 50 miles away from the frontline of the Islamic State (IS) attacks.

Iraqi Christians prayed at St Joseph's Church in Irbil, northern Iraq yesterday, despite it being close to ISIS activity.AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

The congregation attending mass at St Joseph's Church in Irbil yesterday was significantly smaller than earlier this year, the Daily Mail reports.

Christians have fled violent threats from IS, the militant group that has declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and northern Iraq, and is seeking to impose extremist Sunni ideology.

Cities such as Mosul and Qaraqosh, which have been home Iraqi Christians for centuries, have been virtually emptied of Christians.

The number of Christians in Iraq has dwindled from around 1 million in 2003 to as low as 200,000 according to some reports.

Thousands have fled to Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region, which has been relatively secure. In August, displaced Iraqis sought shelter at St Joseph's Church, when a number of predominantly Christian villages were captured by the militants.

Christians have faced the threat to leave, convert to Islam or die at the hands of the militants. But they are not the only ones at risk – anyone who disagrees with IS, including Shia Muslims and other religious minorities, faces death.

The line of defence against IS is being defended by joint Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, supported by US air strikes.

The United Nations reports that 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced by the spread of IS since January.