MOSUL, Fallujah: Dozens of worshipers celebrated Mass at a church in Mosul, northern Iraq, on Saturday for the first time since it was restored after it was ransacked by Daesh terrorists.
Daesh invaded Mosul and proclaimed it its “capital” in 2014, in an assault that forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in the northern province of Nineveh to flee, some to the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq.
The Iraqi army drove out the jihadists three years later after months of grueling street fighting that devastated the city.
The Syriac Catholic Mar Tuma Church, which dates from the 19th century, was used by jihadists as a prison or court.
Restoration work is in progress and its marble floor has been dismantled to be completely redone.
In September 2021, a new bell was inaugurated at the church in a ceremony attended by dozens of worshippers.
The 285 kg bell cast in Lebanon rang out with cries of joy on Saturday before the start of mass.
The service began with congregants filling the church singing hymns as an organist played.
“It’s the most beautiful church in Iraq,” said Father Pios Affas, 82, a delighted parish priest.
Affas also paid tribute to those behind the restoration work which he said had “brought the church back to its former glory, as it was 160 years ago”.
Inside the church, ocher and gray marble shine in the nave, where the altar and colonnaded arches have been restored and new stained glass installed.
The jihadists destroyed all Christian symbols, including the holy cross, and parts of the church were damaged by fire and shelling.
Artisans worked diligently to “clean the burnt marble” and restore it, said Fraternité en Irak, a French NGO that helps religious minorities, which helped fund the restoration work earlier this year.
The outbuildings and rooms on the first floor, whose windows have been smashed and where Daesh graffiti can be seen, still need to be repaired.
Mosul and the surrounding plains of Nineveh were once home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the region.
Iraq’s Christian population has fallen to less than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Nineveh province was left in ruins after three years of jihadist occupation that ended in 2017 when Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition airstrikes pushed them back. Several monasteries and churches are being renovated but reconstruction is slow and the Christian population that fled has not returned.
Meanwhile, two rockets targeting a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops crashed near the compound on Saturday with no casualties or damage, security sources said. .
“Two rockets fell outside the Iraqi base of Ain Al-Asad,” a statement from the security forces said, adding that there were no “casualties”.
The base, controlled by Iraq, is located in the desert of the western province of Anbar and hosts foreign coalition troops fighting the Daesh group.
A coalition official said there were “no reported impacts to the facility” and “no injuries to coalition personnel were reported”.
A previously unknown group calling itself “International Resistance” claimed responsibility for the attack on a pro-Iranian channel on the Telegram messaging app.
Rockets and drones frequently target the Ain Al-Asad base.