IRAQ – First Mass in Qaraqosh since it was liberated from IS
Although Qaraqosh was liberated by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) and Iraqi military about twelve days ago, its former citizens are unable to return. Sporadic gunfire is still going on and the town has not yet been cleared of bombs.
Nevertheless, despite the danger the town’s brave priests went to Qaraqosh on the first day of liberation. They have returned every day since although it is still not safe for them to stay overnight.
“It’s the first time I’m returning to Qaraqosh, which is home to a number of ancient churches, chapels and monasteries” said local priest Fr Cherbel, adding “I don’t feel very free – not yet anyway.”
IS destroyed many Christian symbols, statues and literature in churches and monasteries, replacing them with their propaganda books and signs. However the Qaraqosh priests were able to salvage some ancient church documents, thankfully untouched by jihadists.
A few days later these Iraqi priests held Sunday mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which had been badly damaged. This significant moment was a cause for celebration for local Assyrian Christians – the first Mass to be held in Qaraqosh for two years since the town was captured by IS militants.
Qaraqosh, a town 20 miles southeast of Mosul, was once home to Iraq’s largest Christian community. There were about 50,000 Christians in the town before they were driven out by Islamic State. The majority Assyrian Christian population in Qaraqosh are part of an ancient branch of Christianity with roots dating back to the 1st century AD. They still worship in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.
As towns in the Ninevah Plain are being liberated, images are emerging on social media of improvised crosses being raised again upon church roofs by Christian soldiers to replace crosses pulled down and broken by IS. One of the NPU leaders said this gesture was symbolic of the Assyrian fight for freedom, and for him it representated “Jesus bringing life back by the cross”. He said:
“He [Jesus] gave us freedom and freedom from sin on the cross… We are almost doing the same thing with that cross when we put it on the roof. ISIS is the sin, and the cross is stopping that sin.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been helping Christians who fled to Erbil from the Nineveh Plain and Mosul since 2014. Initially this was in the form of humanitarian emergency aid, especially food and shelter. Gradually displaced families were housed in containers and pre-fabricated buildings were erected by ACN to be used as schools and kindergartens for both Christian and Muslim refugee children. There is even a small Christian church in one of the camps for displaced Iraqis.