By TRT World
The gardens of the church lay in cinders. Its 4,000-year-old
sculptures and iconic stone carvings were defaced, windows smashed and
doors ripped out of their frames, clothes and goods strewn about the
ground covered in dirt and ash. A hadith, or a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “Cleanliness is half of faith,” is written on the wall of a sleeping area.
Church bells rang in the Assyrian village of Karemlash, in the
Hamdaniyah district of Mosul’s outskirts for the first time since
militants took control of the village and expelled its residents. Today,
Father Paul Thabit returned to the church where he is the parish priest
to find the remnants of what has been converted into an operations base
“I can't describe my joy. My hopes have been realised,” said Father
Thabit. “I always held onto hope that we would return — and today it
The Church of the Holy Saint Mart Barbara had been overtaken by Daesh
earlier this year. Twenty-seven kilometres east of Mosul, the
unassuming village in the Assyrian Christian region of the Nineveh
Plains is just close enough to the main highway from Erbil to seem
within the safe zone, but just close enough for the militants, based in
Mosul, to make a grab for it.
As Iraqi tanks rolled into the town, they found a ghost town. Empty
of civilians, the village appeared to be used solely as an outpost for
Daesh to run car bombs out of — evidenced by a still-smoldering pickup
truck sitting just outside the front gates where the Iraqi flag now
flies. Officers of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) said that fighters
had fled without mounting a resistance, leaving behind their weapons and
equipment and attempting to burn the stone houses.
On Wednesday, Iraqi army minesweepers were sweeping through the
village house by house to clear the area of buried mines and booby
traps, which have been a signature leftover seen in towns abandoned by
Inside the church, Daesh members had burrowed through a hill to
create a labyrinth of five tunnels, each about two metres wide, for
weapons storage, sleeping, and to escape through the back of the church
behind the hill and out of the village.
“They were using the church for everything — for sleeping, for
relaxing, for hiding from airstrikes,” said Nasser Hussein Diab, an ISF
platoon sergeant, as he pushes aside a dusty sofa as wide as one of the
tunnels. “They made sniper positions, a bomb-making workshop, a bakery, a
well for water, whatever you want.”
As Father Thabit toured the destruction around the church, a
spontaneous ceremony started to form when a preacher from the local Shia
mosque stopped by to greet him, followed by a throng of soldiers
beckoning to take a selfie with the returning imam. One officer brought
over an Iraqi flag, and the two men’s candid conversation turned into
impassioned speeches to the crowd of soldiers and press. Smiling toward a
cross laden with flowers, he spoke with a hearty bellow, half to the
imam, and half giving a sermon.
“We put up this cross today to show we are united, and that we want to live in peace,” Father Thabit said.
“Sunni, Shia, Assyrian, Yazidi, all the minorities of Iraq — there is no difference between us.”