Earlier this month, the Iraqi government declared a full victory over the Islamic State, making way for tens of thousands of displaced refugees to finally return to their homes and villages after two or three years away. While occasion should be a joyous one—especially given the timeliness to the Christmas season—the homecomings are proving to be bittersweet.
As the Guardian reported, the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof reopened for its first Christmas celebration in three years. ISIS had overrun the town and forced out the 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community that called the area home. Residents were confronted with the ultimatum of converting and paying a tax or death, causing many to permanently seek refuge abroad. Hundreds of congregants did return to St. George’s over the weekend though, and a traditional bonfire with lit in the church’s courtyard as a symbol of renewal.
“We just want to live in peace,” local Umm Rita told the Guardian. “We are more anxious now than when ISIS was in our homes.“
In the Nineveh Plains, which was once the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities, ISIS looted burned down homes and churches, stealing artifacts and leaving ruins in their wake.
In Qaraqosh, a town just outside Mosul, worshipers gathered at the hollowed out Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate for midnight mass on Christmas. Prior to the ISIS occupation, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000, but only a few hundred families have returned. Those that did, sat on donated folding chairs amidst ISIS tagged graffiti and soot-covered walls.
Despite the conditions, the church’s pastor, Father Butros Kappa, was determined to provide some sense of normalcy.
“We’ll have a Christmas mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” Fr. Kappa said. “[It is important] to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”
(H/T: The Guardian)