SADNESS AND JOY: CHRISTIANS IN MOSUL CELEBRATE FIRST CHRISTMAS AFTER IS DEFEAT
25 DECEMBER 2017 – A church in Mosul has hosted the first Christmas service since the city was liberated from the Islamic State (IS). Saint Paul’s Church in east Mosul celebrated Christmas mass on Sunday amid tight security.
At least 100 Christians were in attendance, with a large number of Muslims coming to support their friends and neighbours. Christians in the congregation spoke of the need to stake a place for Christians in the city’s future after three years of persecution by the radical Islamists. “Our faith and our hope was to be here to evangelise on our earth and in our town,” says Father Thabet Habib “This pushed us to come here and to celebrate the mass and to tell all the world that we are here as Christians.”
The service was attended by local media, sheikhs, senior leaders from Mosul and military officers including Major General Najim Al Jabouri, who commanded the military operation to liberate Nineveh from the IS. “I want to send a message to my Christian friends: we need them rebuild Mosul,” he said outside the church. “The terrorists tried to destroy us, but now we are united.”
As the service began, the ringing of bells played over a sound system competed with the chatter of jackhammers, working at restoring nearby buildings which had been damaged in fighting. The church’s marble walls and fixtures had been looted during the IS occupation, leaving a bare concrete shell.
IS militants, who occupied Mosul until being ousted in July, had offered the city’s Christians a lamentable choice: convert, flee, or be killed. Nearly all fled to the nearby Kurdistan Region, and from there many then decided to permanently leave Iraq.
Despite being expelled from the city under the IS, some 60 Christian families have already returned to live in Mosul. Now the rest are being encouraged by many of the city’s Christian population to return.
But in the week before Christmas, a group of Muslim students from Mosul University helped to prepare the church for the service, removing rubble and sweeping the floors. Worshippers were greeted with sweets and badges handed out by the students. The badges bore an image of a Mosul church and mosque side by side. “We wanted to welcome them and say Merry Christmas,” said Taha Al-Saffar, a 21-year-old medical student. “Our message is we want you back in our city. Mosul is a city for all religions.”
Christianity arrived in Mosul in the 1st Century AD, contributing to both the culture and architecture of the city, and until recently a sizeable Christian minority called Mosul home. Some 10,000 Christians lived in Mosul at the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to an estimate from the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, a local NGO. Extortion, kidnapping and executions in the decade that followed prompted many to leave, and by the time Isil overran the city in 2014, there were just 3,000 living in the city.
In the three years of the IS occupation and the subsequent battle to free the city, much of Mosul’s cultural heritage was destroyed, including the tomb of the Biblical and Quranic prophet Jonah. Churches were deliberately destroyed, or repurposed as Isil headquarters. The Al-Sa’a, or “Clock” Church, had been reported destroyed by the IS, but when the Old City was liberated it was one of the few buildings still standing.
Other Mosul residents have begun their own campaigns to ask their former Christian neighbours to return, saying they contributed to more than just the city’s heritage. “Without Christians, Mosul is nothing,” said Walid Al Dabagh, a 47-year-old Muslim artist. Last week, Mr Dabagh painted a mural on a wall in east Mosul depicting the Old City’s iconic Al-Hadba minaret and the Clock Church’s tower embracing in a message of religious coexistence. “This is a message to our Christian brothers to come back to Mosul,” he said.
Despite the persecution they experienced from extremist groups, many of Mosul’s Christians said they still maintained good relations with their Muslim friends and former neighbours. “The people of Mosul haven’t changed,” said Yohanna Yousef Towaya, a Christian who works for the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation. Mr Towaya lived in Mosul until leaving in 2006 but for the past decade says his Muslim neighbours have taken care of his property.
Recently he returned to visit the city he grew up in. “I took my son to the doctor and afterwards the doctor wouldn’t take any money. He told me, ‘You Christians are the flowers of Iraq.’” On his old street, former neighbours rushed to embrace his family, he said. “Women in the street came to my wife and daughter-in-law to kiss them,” he said. “They asked us why we haven’t returned yet. That is a good sign.”