By Assyrian International News Agency
(AFP) A handful of faithful gathered in a burnt out church Sunday for the
first mass to be celebrated in two years in Qaraqosh, which was once
Iraq's main Christian town.
Iraqi forces retook Qaraqosh from
the Islamic State group days earlier, as part of a massive offensive to
wrest back the country's second city Mosul.
"After two years and
three months in exile, I just celebrated the Eucharist in the cathedral
of the Immaculate Conception the Islamic State wanted to destroy,"
Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, said.
"But in my heart it was always there," Mouche, who officiated with four priests, told AFP.
IS jihadists took over swathes of Iraq in June 2014, also taking Mosul where the prelate was based.
moved to Qaraqosh, a town with a mostly Christian population of around
50,000 that was controlled by Kurdish forces and lies east of Mosul in
the Nineveh plain.
But a second jihadist sweep towards
Kurdish-controlled areas two months later forced around 120,000 Iraqi
Christians and members of other minorities to leave their towns and
"We had no other choice but to convert or become slaves.
We fled to preserve our faith. Now we're going to need international
protection," Father Majeed Hazem said.
Donning a resplendent chasuble and stole, Mouche led mass on an
improvised altar in front of a modest congregation mostly made up of
members of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a local Christian
'Damaged but still standing'
"I can't describe what
I'm feeling. This is my land, my church," said Samer Shabaoun, a
militiaman who was involved in operations to retake Qaraqosh.
"They used everything against us: they shot at us, they sent car bombs, suicide attackers. Despite all this, we're here."
before Sunday's mass, the soldiers now guarding Qaraqosh were surprised
to find two elderly women in a bouse, one of them bedridden.
stayed the whole of the occupation by the Islamic State, from the first
day. Sometimes they would bring us food," one of them said.
bell tower of the church was damaged, statues decapitated and missals
strewn across the nave floor, which is still covered in soot from the
fire the jihadists lit when they retreated.
But some of the crosses have already been replaced and a new icon was
laid on the main altar, where the armed militiamen took turns to light
"This church is such a powerful symbol that if we hadn't
found it like this, damaged but still standing, I'm not sure residents
would have wanted to come back," Mouche said.
Christmas in Mosul?
the fact that it's still here gives us hope," the blue-eyed prelate,
who wears thin-rimmed glasses and sports a neatly trimmed white goatee,
said as he surveyed the damage in Qaraqosh after mass.
It could be
months before former residents return to a town that needs to be
cleared of explosive devices left behind by IS and whose infrastructure
The seminary library was completely burnt down and the ashes were still warm.
"This is barely a few days old -- the jihadists torched it when soldiers started entering the town," Mouche said.
the course of his visit to Qaraqosh, the archbishop recited ritual
phrases to "purify" various buildings, holding a cross in one hand and
swinging a thurible of incense with the other.
Jihadists appear to have used the cloister-like back yard of the cathedral for target practice.
ground was littered with casings, the pillars riddled with bullet
impacts and IS instructors even left behind a board detailing the
workings of a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The Iraqi offensive on
Mosul launched two weeks ago has yet to reach the city borders, and
commanders have warned it could last months but Mouche was optimistic:
"I hope to celebrate a Christmas mass in Mosul cathedral."