For decades, the
Immaculate Conception Church in Qaraqosh was the heart of Iraq's largest
Christian town. After two years under Islamic State rule, it lies
scarred and desecrated.
the church's inner courtyard, Islamic State fighters set up a shooting
range for target practice, leaving behind bullet-riddled female
mannequins and hardboard figures when they were driven out.
yard's arches and walls are cratered. At one end, empty shell casings
carpet its flagstones near piles of trash and sheets of hymn music; a
wooden pulpit for sermons sits pockmarked and cracked by bullets at the
other, now with a small pink "Hallelujah" flag posted on top.
than a month after Iraqi forces regained Qaraqosh, the church's spire
cross still hangs at an angle, its inside is blackened by fire and its
walls are daubed with Islamic State slogans and militant names scrawled
on its pillars.
been held in the Immaculate Conception for the first time in two years
and Christians are visiting to see what remains. But few think of
returning for good to Qaraqosh, which once had 50,000 residents but is
now all but a ghost town.
they should leave it like this and people visit and see what Islamic
State did," said Aram Alqastoma, a student who came from a nearby
Christian enclave in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region with friends to
help clean up the church. "They destroyed everything. And it destroyed
my heart to see this."
army retook Qaraqosh in late October as part of the campaign to
recapture nearby Mosul, Islamic State's largest Iraqi stronghold, two
years after the group swept across the north of the country to form its
self-declared "Caliphate" there and over the border in Syria.
come briefly to Qaraqosh to check on burned out homes and collect
belongings from a town that was one of the earliest sites of
diggers sit ready in the town centre to help rebuild, and main streets
have been cleared of rubble. But many of its shops are burned out and
ransacked. Water or electricity have yet to return.
in the town centre are sprayed with "NPU" - the 500-strong Christian
paramilitary brigade Nineveh Plains Protection Units that protects
Qaraqosh under the auspices of the Iraqi army.
in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The minority
gradually fled the violence after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
When Islamic State arrived, many abandoned their homes and fled to
Behnam Aboush, who helped form the NPU to fight for Qaraqosh, said his
units were protecting the Christian town to free up the Iraqi forces
trying to take back Mosul, 30 km (20 miles) to the northwest.
said Christians would return to their towns and villages only if
Christian forces provided security rather than Iraqi Arab or Kurdish
forces like before, and if they had some guarantees of international
protection. "Always we have lost our land. We will stay if we guide our
own security," he said.
The NPU is funded by the central government and gets its weapons from the Iraqi army.
newly bulldozed earthen barrier surrounds the town as protection
against Islamic State infiltration from the Nineveh plains. Residents
say two men on motorbikes were stopped recently, suspected of being
Islamic State suicide bombers.
But even victory against Islamic
State and the possibility of a permanent Christian force in the town
will not be enough for many.
Mansour returned to Qaraqosh just for a second time to pack more
clothes and her son's toys from the family home into their car. Her
sister's home was used by the militants and later destroyed, she said.
But memories are too much now.
going to emigrate. We just came to see our home and our memories, it's
too sad," she said before driving away. "It's hard to leave your
memories, but I don't trust living here anymore."
the Immaculate Conception, one of several churches in the town centre,
the clean up is only just beginning inside its charred and wrecked nave.
one wall black militant graffiti still reads: "Islamic State is here to
stay despite the Crusader coalition thanks to the blood of our
Nearby someone has scrawled a defiant reply: "Jesus remains in our hearts."
(editing by David Stamp)