A burned-out church in northern Iraq will celebrate Easter mass for the first time in three years today.
The Syriac Catholic Church of Qaraqosh, 20 miles from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, is still seared by attempts to blow it up.
Its walls and stone columns are scorched by fire, its windows shattered and bullet-holes pierce its doors.
Fighters from Isil decapitated statues and demolished every crucifix; surfaces not charred by smoke have been scrawled with derogatory Isil graffiti and the terror group’s infamous black flag.
Isil fighters used the courtyard outside as a shooting range. Metal mannequins lay on the ground riddled with bullets and there are empty bullet casings, as well as other debris, everywhere.
A sizeable pile of ash in the centre of the yard, where Isil burned every textbook they could find, is beginning to sprout weeds. The church’s bell tower, from which the bell has been cut, looks set to topple at the slightest motion. Overhead, large stone blocks protrude precariously from the church’s facade.
Natural light has been choked from the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Iraq’s largest, which would have rivalled Ireland’s grandest in its day. Consecrated in 1947, it was the third church to have been built by Syriac Catholics on this site over the centuries. Isil burned all three.
“What was our fault that they did this against us?” asked Syriac Catholic Archbishop of the Mosul area, Yohanna Petros Mouche. Archbishop Mouche was visiting the church when he spoke to the Sunday Independent.
“When I came back first I was happy. But when I saw the church was burned it filled my heart with sadness.”
“God willing, we are going to rebuild the church, but the people’s houses need to be rebuilt first. If there are no people living here, what use is a church?”
The terror group advanced on Qaraqosh in the summer of 2014, forcing the town’s inhabitants to run for their lives in the middle of the night.
None of the town’s 44,000 inhabitants, predominantly Syriac Catholics, have returned to Qaraqosh since it was liberated in October. There is still no electricity or water in the town and most infrastructure is in ruins.
The roads have been ripped up by explosions and buildings destroyed. Several multi-story buildings have been pancaked by airstrikes.
Christian homes are marked by blackened exteriors – evidence of the systematic burning out of their houses by Isil – as well as derogatory graffiti and defaced crucifixes.
Qaraqosh native Salam Daniel, a fighter with the exclusively Christian Ninevah Plains Protection Unit, recalls the night Isil advanced on his home town.
Late in the evening, word had gone out that Isil was approaching. For some, a local priest delivered timely life-saving news. Some families escaped within minutes – around midnight – while in the centre of the town, Salam says, Isil were wary to enter, cautious of an ambush. That’s what saved his life.
He said he and his friends, along with one family member, didn’t leave until dawn. “Thank God, we were lucky they didn’t come in. We would have been killed.”
The 27-year-old, who made his First Communion in the now burned-out church, has an AK-47 on his shoulder and a crucifix tucked into his shirt.
“For me, the most difficult thing was the moment I came back and saw Hamdaniya (another name for Qaraqosh) like this because it had been the most beautiful town in all of Iraq.”
Salam said the town had been pillaged with “rights” to take items from whole blocks of houses sold to second-hand dealers from Mosul. After capturing the city, Isil invited the dealers, who are everywhere in Iraq, to come to Qaraqosh to view the town’s abandoned houses and negotiate a price for the items inside.
The number of houses on one street could range from five to 20, and the “rights” to loot entire streets were sold for between $2,000 and $5,000 (€1,900-€4,700).
The items, such as furniture, electronics, TVs, and air-conditioners, were taken back to Mosul and sold in second-hand shops.
There were around 50 to 70 Isil militants living in the abandoned town, who only needed a few houses for themselves. Salam said his own family’s home was used by Isil fighters as a “little base” before they eventually tried to burn it. “Thankfully they didn’t succeed.”
He said all the money and gold in his house was taken. They left a computer ahead of their retreat but made sure to take the hard drive – thereby removing crucial intelligence.
“Some of my family have gone to Australia but I didn’t go. I live in Hamdaniya, I die in Hamdaniya.”
Founder and leader of the Ninevah Plain Protection Unit – a force of 5,000 exclusively Christian fighters – Commander Benham Aboosh, a former Iraqi Army General, told the Sunday Independent that his aim was “to bring my people back to Qaraqosh. I swore to them: I will go back with you to Qaraqosh.”
His hope this Easter is that all denominations living locally now accepted peace: “I want to see my son and his family to be safe in the future,” he said.