ISIS forced the Christians of the Nineveh plain around Mosul to flee. Now they are returning, but in the key town of Qaraqosh, the fighting rages on.
(By Florian Neuhof, The Daily Beast.) The church’s interior has been blackened by fire, and the altar has been vandalized. ISIS graffiti has been smeared on the walls, and songbooks lie burned on the ground. But the two priests, undeterred, make their way through the nave of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, climbing the narrow stairway to the mezzanine where the organ has been smashed, and emerge on the flat rooftop next to the belfry.
Here, the tolling of the bell of Iraq’s largest church once summoned 3,000 people to prayer on Sundays. Now the belfry is disfigured by cannon fire and the bell itself is gone, snatched from its chain.
Without hesitation, the priests climb on top of the arched roof running along the spine of the building. They are followed by a handful of men in military fatigues. A makeshift cross—two pieces of plywood strung together with copper wire—quickly follows, and the men begin feverishly to pile up stones to create a simple foundation.
Shots ring out nearby, and mortar rounds crash down a few hundred feet from the church, but within minutes the cross holds firm. Ecstatic, Father Majid and Father Amar burst into song, and the hallelujah rings out in Aramaic, the ancient language that links Iraq’s Christians to the genesis of their faith.
“I’m very happy now that we are able to return to our church,” says Father Amar after climbing back down from the roof, visibly shaken by emotion.
For over two years the Christians of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, had been deprived of their place of worship. After ISIS stormed into Mosul in June 2014, the militants quickly turned their sights on the surrounding towns and villages, home to the majority of Iraq’s Christians. By August, they had taken Qaraqosh, forcing its 50,000 inhabitants to abandon the town.
But Father Amar’s joy at returning to his native Qaraqosh is tinged with sorrow about the destruction that surrounds him.