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Story highlights

Christians fleeing ISIS celebrate Christmas away form home after fleeing death or persecution

Hundreds of thousands are spread across the world, many in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey

They grieve for their losses, but pray to one day to return to Iraq as proud Christians with no fear of reprisals

(CNN) —  

Perfumed smoke fills the aisle as the priest swings incense back and forth in the thurible, a small metal canister suspended from chains that holds the pungent smoke. It is something priest Bishare al Shemani has done for years, but this year he is doing it in a makeshift church thousands of miles from his home church. It is not by choice but necessity.

Al Shemani is one of the hundreds of thousands of Christians forced to leave his country because of ISIS.

“They took our areas, our house, the places that we used to hold so dear,” al Shemani said.

Parishioners surround him. They are crossing themselves, singing and praying. All fled for their lives fearing death, but nothing could kill their faith.

Nearly 2,000 miles from Mosul, Iraq, where ISIS has tormented their people alongside their Muslim neighbors, they have found temporary refuge in Turkey.

“My last Christmas was in my family’s house. It was me, my mom, and my dad and my brother. We were all together. And we hope to be united as one family in one place just once more,” said Meryem Salim.

She is from Bashika, about 30 kilometers from Mosul.

But for now, they are just outside Istanbul, in Yalova province, praying and singing, a family torn apart.

They sing Christmas carols, including “Jingle Bells” in Arabic, in an old wedding hall that has been converted into a church for Christmas.

They grieve for their losses but pray for their homeland, hoping one day to return to Iraq as proud Christians with no fear of reprisals simply because of their faith. They come from one of the oldest and longest-standing Christian communities in the world.

Christianity is under siege in the very region where it was born.

Iraq’s Christian population was about 1.5 million 10 years ago. Now, it’s estimated there are only 500,000 still living there. The rest have either fled or been killed.

In Syria, of the 1.1 million Christians, about 600,000 have fled or died.

In the Middle East they call themselves by many names, including Assyrians, Syriac and Chaldeans, but they are all Christians hoping to practice their faith in peace.

Hundreds of thousands are now spread across the world. Many are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey alongside their Muslim brethren, who also have fled their countries because of the threat of death or persecution based on the Islamic sect they ascribe to.

On this day, the Christians huddled together in their makeshift church near Istanbul, humbly offering their thanks to their God that they have survived to celebrate one of the most joyous days on the Christian calendar.

“This Christmas, it is sad to be far away from our country, it is sad to be away from our neighbors, from our friends, from our families. It is not easy. But something is better than nothing. Thanks for God, we have a priest here, that we are gathering here. I hope that everything will be OK,” Christian Iraqi refugee Johnson Razgin said.

CNN’s Mary Rogers and Gul Tuysuz contributed to this article.