Hopes for Christmas mass in Mosul as IS retreats

Hopes for Christmas mass in Mosul as IS retreats
A small Iraqi Christian town has celebrated mass for the first time in two years. An optimistic archbishop now hopes to do the same at Christmas in Mosul's cathedral
3 min read
31 October, 2016
Iraqi Christians hope to celebrate mass in Mosul as Iraqi troops make gains [Getty]

The first mass in two years has been celebrated in an Iraqi Christian town, recently liberated from Islamic State control.

And as Iraqi forces continue their march towards Mosul, there is hope a Christmas mass could be celebrated in the city's cathedral.

A small congregation gathered in a burnt out church in Qaraqosh on Sunday for the ceremony, just days after the town, east of Mosul, was liberated.

"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.

He moved to Qaraqosh, a town with a mostly Christian population of around 50,000 that was controlled by Kurdish forces, shortly after IS overran Mosul in June 2014 - the first town to fall into militants' hands before taking large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

But a second sweep two months later forced around 120,000 Iraqi Christians and members of other minorities to leave their towns and villages.

"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.

They used everything against us: they shot at us, they sent car bombs, suicide attackers. Despite all this, we're here.

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 militia.

"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."

The 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 militants set 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 candles.

"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.

"But the fact that it's still here gives us hope," he said.

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 suffered badly.

During 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.

Militants appear to have used the back yard of the cathedral for target practice; the ground was littered with casings, the pillars riddled with bullet impacts and even instructions on the workings of a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The Iraqi offensive on Mosul, now in its third week, has yet to reach the city borders, and commanders have warned it could at least a year but Mouche was optimistic: "I hope to celebrate a Christmas mass in Mosul cathedral."