Iraqi priests resurrect cross in Christian town nearly recaptured from ISIL

Qaraqosh fell to ISIL in August 2014 and its 50,000 inhabitants fled to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Now, with the Iraqi army close to expelling the extremists, two priests return to the town to find its hospital and biggest church ravaged by the militant group, reports Florian Neuhof.

Father Amar and Father Majid erect a cross – with the help of Christian militiamen – on the roof of the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on October 25, 2016. Florian Neuhof for The National
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QARAQOSH // Iraqi army Humvees roar through the arid plains of Nineveh province, kicking up immense clouds of dust as they follow the dirt track that winds its way to the front. Among the rugged war machines is a white SUV, which seems in a particular hurry to reach its destination.

In the car sit two priests, dressed all in black and wearing clerical collars, and a few men clad in army fatigues, clutching old Kalashnikovs. They are on their way to Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, where the Iraqi army is fighting to expel the last ISIL fighters.

Qaraqosh fell to ISIL in August 2014, shortly after the insurgents shocked the world by taking control of nearby Mosul. With the operation to liberate Mosul and end ISIL’s reign in Iraq well under way, the areas surrounding the northern city are slowly being reclaimed by the army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Amongst them is Qaraqosh, whose 50,000 inhabitants fled to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region when the extremists seized the town.

Qaraqosh has not been fully secured yet. The insurgents are still holding on to some of the outskirts. Sniper fire and mortar rounds continue to harass the Iraqi soldiers and even the threat of suicide car bombers has not been banished.

But this has not deterred Father Amar and Father Majid, who both hail from Qaraqosh, from returning to their hometown. After navigating the gently rolling plains, the convoy reaches the town’s fringes, where it passes tanks and Humvees of the 9th Armoured Division, and pulls up next to an abandoned hospital.

ISIL has ransacked the building, taking all of its surgical equipment and even stripping the computers of their memory chips. Part of the complex has been destroyed by a fire and a discarded police uniform lies at the entrance of the guard room, suggesting a tale of panicked escape as the militants closed in.

The priests are visibly shocked by the destruction around them.

“This hospital served the people from more than fifty villages. Hundreds of people came here every day. Now you can see what happened,” says Father Amar, clearly struggling to keep his composure.

The convoy continues, rolling past facades scarred by bullet holes and punctured by tank shells. On the broad road leading into town, an engine block and mangled car frame lie not far from the shattered hull of a Humvee. According to Iraqi high command, ISIL has already launched well over a hundred car bombs at the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in its desperate defence of Mosul. Some of them detonated in Qaraqosh where 18 soldiers have been killed in the fighting and around 80 wounded, according to Major Mohammed, who heads the field hospital behind the front line.

A large structure moves into focus on the left: the Church of the Immaculate Conception is the biggest in Qaraqosh, drawing in 3,000 people for Sunday mass before ISIL came to town, according to Father Amar.

The extremists seem to have taken pleasure in desecrating the holy site: wooden rows of seats have been tossed over, the mezzanine floor housing the organ has been torched, and the altar and interior walls are charred. ISIL graffiti is scrawled on the columns supporting the cental part of the building known as the nave.

“It is a big shock to see it this destroyed. I cried,” Father Amar says after taking in some of the damage.

In the courtyard of the administrative complex behind the church stand mannequins set up by ISIL for target practice. Thee walls on all four sides have been sprayed with bullets, and spent cartridges litter the floor. The insurgents used the church to store weapons and ammunition, says Major Fuad Jassem of the 9th Division.

“They knew that the coalition would not bomb a site of such spiritual importance,” the major adds, sitting in a command vehicle that co-ordinates the movement of the troops in the city.

After entering the church the priests spend little time surveying the building’s interior. Instead they race with their armed entourage up a stairway towards the roof. They emerge near the elegant belfry, which has been hit by a tank shell. The bell is missing, ripped from its chain.

The two men climb from the flat roof above the church’s aisle onto the arched roof covering the nave. One brings a wooden cross made from two pieces of plywood strung together with wire, and they begin to feverishly pile up stones from the damaged belfry to build a makeshift base.

Gunfire erupts nearby, and a few mortar rounds land not far from the church, but the men barely notice as they immerse themselves in their work.

Soon the cross stands erect. Elated, the priests break into song, singing a hymn in Aramaic, the ancient language that Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago and which is still spoken today by the Assyrians of Iraq, who make up the majority of the country’s Christians. The armed men, who belong to a Christian militia that has been supporting the Iraqi army’s push into Qaraqosh, join in the singing.

“This cross is a symbol of victory for us, and for all Christians in Iraq,” says Father Majid, standing in the church’s blackened interior after descending from the roof.

As he speaks, the militiamen light candles and place them on the altar. The priests approach the altar and once again begin to sing, performing the first Christian rite in Qaraqosh since ISIL chased the ancient community from its homes more than two years ago. Outside, the war goes on.