IRAQ – Christians celebrate Easter and hope to return home
Hundreds of Iraqi Christians gathered on Sunday at Mar Gewargis (St George) Chaldean Catholic church in Tel Esqof, north of Mosul, to celebrate Easter there for the first time since 2014. The church’s windows were destroyed by IS buta new cross has now been put up to replace the one the jihadists took down.
During the Easter service the choir sang hymns in Chaldean, a language close to the Amaraic spoken by Jesus. After Mass a French group, SOS Chretiens d’Orient, distributedof soft drinks and coloured eggs to the congregation in the inner courtyard.
“I wish peace for Iraq, for Syria, for Lebanon,” said Aws Hermez, the church’s deacon, referring to other Christian communities in neighbouring countries. “Peace for the whole world.”
“Thank God,” said Madeleine Roufael, a 70 year-old widow, grateful to be celebrating Easter once again. She hopes one day to return to Mosul, about 20 km (12 miles) to the south. “God willing, we will return home”. Kyriacos Isho, 75, who was accompanied by his 12 children and grandchildren, stated “God willing, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ will also mark the return and rising-up of the Christians in Iraq.”
Although the church was damaged,Tel Esqof, or Bishop’s Hill in Arabic, did not sustain the same amount of damage as other Christian towns in the plain of Nineveh when it was overrun by IS three years ago. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters dislodged the hardline Sunni militants from Tel Esqof just a week after it had fallen, in August 2014.
Most Christian families were forced to flee their homes in the Nineveh Plain when IS gave them an ultimatum: pay a high tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Thousands of Muslims also left when IS targeted all non-Sunni Muslims living under its rule and inflicted harsh punishment on Sunnis who refused to abide by its extreme interpretation of Islam. Many displaced families sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region, across the Zab river to the east.
Tel Esqof has been relatively secure since last October, when U.S.-backed Kurdish and Iraqi forces launched an offensive to dislodge the militants from Mosul, taking back dozens of villages and towns along the way.
More than 350 displaced Iraqi families have now returned to Tel Esqof. However, for many who are staying with relatives or friends this remains only a temporary place of residence. They are still waiting to return to their original homes.