Iraqi Christians filled the pews of the fire-scarred Mar Shimoni church in a town east of Mosul on Christmas Eve for the first service since its recapture from jihadists.
The Islamic State group destroyed crosses at the church in the town of Bartalla and set it alight, but volunteers worked for days to ready it for the service, the first held here in two and a half years.
The damage done by IS is still visible: pieces of crosses can be found in and around the church, parts of it are still charred from the flames, and the face of a statue near its entrance has been smashed, the hands broken off.
But a new cross has been erected on top of the church, and the Christmas Eve service held here is a step on what will be a long road to recovery for the town.
For some of the displaced Christians of Bartalla, it was a deeply emotional experience.
“I can never describe… our happiness and everything. We feel like life returned,” said Nada Yaqub.
“We felt that our cross is still around our necks. No one could take it from us.”
Matti Hanna called the jihadists who displaced the town’s people “criminals”.
“My feelings are the feelings of all the people of Bartalla, the same feelings: we missed this day… we missed it a lot,” said Hanna.
IS seized Bartalla and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in the summer of 2014, leaving Christians with the grim choices of conversion, paying a tax, fleeing or death.
The town was recaptured as part of the massive military operation to retake Mosul, the last IS-held Iraqi city, which was launched on October 17.
– ‘We are staying’ –
Worshippers travelled in buses from Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Arbil to Bartalla for the service.
It was held with security forces deployed around the church, in a town marred by smashed buildings and IS graffiti.
But there were some festive aspects as well: a Christmas tree decorated in ornaments, coloured lights and topped by a star stood at the entrance to the church compound, and the bell at Mar Shimoni was rung at the beginning and end of the service.
Worshippers held candles during the service, which was conducted in Aramaic and Arabic, the air smelling of incense, gas heaters only slightly warming the chilly air.
“We want to deliver the message that we are staying in this country and that these are our roots and our origins,” Father Yaqub Saadi, the church’s priest, told AFP.
Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, attended the service, as did Nawfal Hammadi, the governor of Nineveh province, where Bartalla is located.
A group of American soldiers also came, but faced some difficulties when one of their heavy armoured vehicles became stuck in a muddy section of a street near the church.
The soldiers entered the church without their usual weapons or body armour, with most of them sitting in a group in the back.
While Bartalla and other Christian areas around Mosul have been recaptured from IS, the large-scale return of residents is still a long way off, with bombs planted by the jihadists still a threat and basic services needing to be restored.
Yaqub said that even though her house in Bartalla was destroyed, she still hopes to come back.
“God willing, I will return,” she said.
SOURCE: AFP, W.G. Dunlop