Church bell rings after 1st church service since recapture of Bartalla, Iraq from IS. The service was held today, on Christmas Eve. pic.twitter.com/lTseLpgmfa
— W.G. Dunlop (@wgdunlop) December 24, 2016
Christmas mass was held in Bartella and Qaraqosh in Iraq, towns near Mosul recaptured from ISIS.
Several hundred Iraqi Christians flocked on Saturday to a northern town recently retaken from Islamic State, celebrating Christmas for the first time since 2013, their joy tainted with sadness over the desecration of their church.
Once home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, Bartella emptied in August 2014 when it fell to Islamic State’s blitz across large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Iraqi forces took it back in the first few days of the U.S.-backed offensive that started in October.
Women holding candles ululated as they went into the town’s Mar Shimoni church, expressing their joy at returning to the place where many of them said they had been baptised.
“This is the best day of my life. Sometimes I thought it would never come,” said Shurook Tawfiq, a 32-year-old housewife displaced to the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil.
The church was badly damaged during Islamic State’s time in control of the town, with crosses taken down, statues of saints defaced and the chancel burnt.
A new cross has been affixed on top of the chapel, while a decorated plastic Christmas tree now stands near the massive gate. Soldiers stood guard nearby and others were posted on rooftops.
A peal of festive bells rang out over the town, which is still largely empty, with many houses reduced to rubble by the fighting that raged two months ago.
“It is a mix of sadness and happiness,” Bishop Mussa Shemani told Reuters before celebrating the Christmas Eve Mass.
“We are sad to see what has been done to our holiest places by our own countrymen, but at the same time we are happy to celebrate the first Mass after two years.”
The region of Nineveh is one of the most ancient settlements of Christianity, going back nearly 2,000 years. ChannelNewsAsia