About 35 miles northwest of Karamles, a town called Alqosh sits nestled below the mountains that divide Iraq from Turkey. For Christians in the Nineveh Plain, Alqosh is a place of national and religious pride, a way station for important figures in the ancient Christian world that some here compare in significance to Jerusalem or Rome.

There’s another history to Alqosh. Back through the winding roads of town sits a tomb said to belong to Nahum, a biblical prophet believed to have lived in the region during the seventh century b.c. Whether or not Nahum is actually interred here, Jews prayed in this place. The building was a synagogue, and the walls are covered in Hebrew. One engraved stone promises, “This will be your dwelling place forever.”

Jews lived in Alqosh for centuries, and in Iraq for thousands of years, although the priest who showed me around, Father Araam, knew about them only from stories. The Babylonian Talmud, which is the major text of rabbinic Judaism, was written here. Then, over a few short years, the Jews disappeared. Almost all of Iraq’s remaining Jews were effectively expelled from the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s amid intense political pressure and mob violence.

Priests in the Nineveh Plain see this history as a warning. Their communities, too, could one day be nothing more than overgrown tombs. If Christians continue to leave the Nineveh Plain and other areas like it, a powerful history will come to an end. In the Protestant mind-set dominant in the U.S., the body of the Church is wherever the people are. But for the ancient Christian groups of Iraq, this is not the case. The people I met there constantly reminded me that Assyrian culture was founded before Christianity. They point to the remnants of ancient aqueducts and settlement mounds, evidence of the empire that once flourished in this region.

For them, Christianity is not just a faith. It is an attachment to a place, a language, a nationality. Scattered across countries and continents, that sense of identity—as a people, not just as members of a religion—is much more difficult to maintain. Securing the fate of the Nineveh Plain is crucial “to protect our identity, our patrimony, our language,” Thabet told me. “We are the original people of Iraq.”

Support for this article has been provided by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs of the Henry Luce Foundation.