Islamic State militants overran the Christian town of Qaraqosh nearly three years ago, smashing every crucifix they found and using the walls of churches for target practice. Residents fled by the thousands, and the few who stayed were forced to spit on images of the Virgin Mary.
This weekend, my colleagues and I attended Easter service in Qaraqosh, which has long been a center of Christian life in Iraq, hoping to find signs of rebirth. Instead, we drove through what looked like a ghost town.
I have been traveling to Iraq frequently over the past few months, and when I visit Muslim districts in areas of eastern Mosul that were recently liberated from the Islamic State, I mostly feel hopeful for the future of the region. Life is returning.
By comparison, Christian districts like Hamdaniya, Karamless and Qaraqosh, which were liberated around five months ago, remain largely empty. Shops in Hamdaniya still bear graffiti left by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which occupied the area for nearly two and a half years.
The graffiti on one building read: “The Islamic State will remain.”
When I ask Iraqi Christians why they haven’t returned to the town, I get conflicting answers. Some say they feel unsafe and don’t trust the government to protect them. They point to the lack of electricity and running water. Others say they are awaiting compensation from the government for their destroyed homes. Still others say they won’t go back until there is a political agreement that gives Christian areas a semiautonomous status.
On Sunday, I visited one of the oldest and largest churches in northern Iraq, the sanctuary of St. George in Qaraqosh. Inside the grounds, security officials checked bags, and soldiers with automatic weapons stood sentry on the church’s roof.
We were told to come early because of the significance of this Easter, the first to be celebrated in Qaraqosh since the Islamic State was flushed out of the town. But when the service started, the majority of the pews were empty.
During the service, I felt the lingering presence of the Islamic State.
A pillar on the way to the altar included the phrase الله أكبر, or “God is great,” scrawled on its surface in black paint.