After two years of Islamic State occupation, church bells are chiming again in Iraq’s largest Christian city.
Two Iraqi priests held a mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh on Sunday (Oct. 30), the first mass there since the city was taken by ISIL in August 2014. Just 20 miles away, Iraqi forces are attempting to re-take Mosul from ISIL militants.
The church is Iraq’s largest, and used to summon more than 3,000 people to its Sunday mass. On Sunday, dozens of people attended the Catholic ceremony—conducted in Aramaic, the ancient language used by Jesus—in a sanctuary still blackened by fire. Those present included members of the military, the police, and journalists, Reuters reported. The priests led prayers and hymns, and gave blessings to the small crowd.
With benches and bells still missing, the crowd stood solemnly under the church’s charred roof, amid scattered debris and a makeshift altar. “We are so happy to return to our church,” Father Majid told the Daily Beast.
In its multi-year military campaign, ISIL has targeted Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslim groups, as well as their religious sites in Iraq and Syria. According to Reuters, ISIL issued an ultimatum to Christians when they took control of Mosul two years ago: Pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Fearing genocide, more than 125,000 Christians fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, including 50,000 Assyrians from Qaraqosh. Overall, the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped precipitously over the past decade, from 1.5 million to less than 500,000.