Iraqi Christians mark first post-IS Easter in recaptured town

Ali Choukeir
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A militiaman stands guard during Easter mass at the Mar Yohanna church in Iraq's predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh on April 16, 2017

Qaraqosh is quiet except for a church bell ringing as Iraqi Christians gather for the first Easter mass since the town was retaken from the Islamic State jihadist group.

IS graffiti mars the walls of the Mar Yohanna church, its bell rings from a tower damaged in the fighting and most of Qaraqosh's residents are still displaced more than five months after the town's recapture.

But for worshippers, the mass is a sign of hope and better things to come, a step on the road to recovery from the disaster that befell Qaraqosh when IS overran it in 2014.

"The mass today represents a major hope for the final return of all," says Qazwan Bulos Mousa, who attended the service with his wife and three children.

"We were the first family to return to the town, and now there are around four families, but life is difficult," he says.

These difficulties include a lack of basic services, says Father Sharbel Aisso, who led the mass on Sunday.

"The infrastructure is destroyed, and there is also no water and no electricity," Aisso says.

But the priest, who also organised Christmas mass at the church last year, does not hide his joy at being back in Qaraqosh.

"I entered the town three days after its liberation," he says.

"When I returned, I felt very, very happy because I saw these churches where I lived all my life in the priesthood."

Around 100 people attended the Easter service at the Mar Yohanna church, a significantly smaller number than took part in a Palm Sunday service at another of the town's churches the week before.

- A sign of hope -

The bell of the Mar Yohanna church is rung by a member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an Assyrian militia that is deployed in Qaraqosh to guard the town.

"Holding the mass here today is a sign of goodness and hope," says Milad Mansour, an officer in the force.

For Mansour, the victory over the jihadists is one of religious as well as military significance.

"We won a victory that is not only a victory in the war; the true victory is the victory of God over Satan," he says.

Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniya or Bakhdida, was once one of Iraq's most important Christian towns.

The extremists worked to erase any signs of Christianity from Qaraqosh after they overran the town in 2014 as part of a sweeping offensive that saw them seize around a third of Iraq.

They smashed icons, toppled church bell towers and systematically chiselled out the crucifixes that once adorned each panel of the outer wall of the Mar Bahnam wa Sara church.

House after house was torched or blown up, and the Mary al-Tahira church was defaced with the group's flag and threats.

But despite the attack on his town and his faith, Anwar Yusef does not call for a response in kind.

"This is my first mass in Qaraqosh since my displacement three years ago," Yusef says.

"But we are here today to confirm that our message is a message of peace, and we do not have anything but love."