Here, the tolling of the bell of Iraq’s largest church once summoned 3,000 people to prayer on Sundays. Now the belfry is disfigured by cannon fire and the bell itself is gone, snatched from its chain.
Without hesitation, the priests climb on top of the arched roof running along the spine of the building. They are followed by a handful of men in military fatigues. A makeshift cross—two pieces of plywood strung together with copper wire—quickly follows, and the men begin feverishly to pile up stones to create a simple foundation.
Shots ring out nearby, and mortar rounds crash down a few hundred feet from the church, but within minutes the cross holds firm. Ecstatic, Father Majid and Father Amar burst into song, and the hallelujah rings out in Aramaic, the ancient language that links Iraq’s Christians to the genesis of their faith.
“I’m very happy now that we are able to return to our church,” says Father Amar after climbing back down from the roof, visibly shaken by emotion.
For over two years the Christians of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, had been deprived of their place of worship. After ISIS stormed into Mosul in June 2014, the militants quickly turned their sights on the surrounding towns and villages, home to the majority of Iraq’s Christians. By August, they had taken Qaraqosh, forcing its 50,000 inhabitants to abandon the town.
But Father Amar’s joy at returning to his native Qaraqosh is tinged with sorrow about the destruction that surrounds him.
“Its very hard for us to see our town like this. Everything is damaged. Do you see that the bell of the church is missing? They destroyed it. Why? I don’t know,” says Father Amar, a middle aged man clad in black and wearing his clerical collar.
The Syriac Catholics worshipping in the Church of the Immaculate Conception have close links to the Vatican. Most Christians in Iraq are Assyrians, and still speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus as he proselytized 2,000 years ago.
“We are so happy to return to our church,” says Father Majid, who can barely keep his eyes from welling up.
In the spacious courtyard next to the church, where the Christians of Qaraqosh used to gather for religious festivals, the jihadists set up mannequins for target practice, and empty cartridges litter the stone floor. According to Maj. Jassem, ISIS stored weapons and ammunition in the church, knowing that it would not be bombed by the coalition.
As if at an excorcism, the priests and militiamen gather to light candles and place them on the altar. Then Father Amar and Father Majid sing again, and their voices echo through the nave, for a moment dispelling the gloom that hangs over these sacred precincts.