Iraq tightens grip on autonomous Kurdish region

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MOSUL: With chants and ululations, Iraqi Christians celebrated the inauguration of a recently restored Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, years after extremists turned it into a religious police office.
Around 300 faithful attended the first mass in the 80-year-old church of Um Al-Mauna — “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” after it was fully renovated.
They prayed and took photos on mobile phones.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” 74-year-old former school director Ilham Abdullah said.
“We hope that Christian families will come back and life will return to what it used to be” in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
Mosul, Iraq’s second city, has historically been among the Arab world’s most culturally diverse cities — a place of mosques, churches, shrines, and tombs.
But when Daesh swept into Iraq in 2014, they announced their “caliphate” from Mosul, and their onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in the Nineveh province to flee.
On the outside wall of Um Al-Mauna, the extremists wrote “no entry, by order of the Daesh Hesba Division (the religious police),” tasked with imposing harsh rules.
“I feel like I have been brought back to life,” said Abdel Masih Selim, a 75-year-old retired banker, who fled the rule of Daesh in Mosul, settling in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
Salim, who came to Mosul specially for the mass, said Chaldeans “have come to see their church that they were forced to abandon when Daesh oppressors ruined it.”
In 2017, the US-backed Iraqi army drove Daesh out after months of grueling fighting, and the Chaldean church was left plastered with the group’s propaganda.
During Daesh’s rule, all marks of Christianity were removed.
Instead, extremists had scribbled their noms de guerre on the church’s walls.
But today, the small church has restored its former design.
In its courtyard, photos show the building’s state after being saved from Daesh, and others illustrate the restoration process.
In Mosul, several other churches and monasteries are being renovated, but reconstruction is slow, and many Christians have not returned.
Pope Francis made a historic visit to the city in 2021, which was meant to encourage the Christian community and deepen interfaith dialogue.
Chaldeans, the majority of Iraq’s Christians, numbered more than a million before the 2003 war that led to the ouster of Saddam Hussein, but the community has since dwindled to just 400,000 in the face of recurring violence that ravaged the country.
Yet Raphael Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church, said despite the difficulties, Iraq’s Christians have a future in the country.
“This is our country and our land,” he said during the inauguration.
“We are here to stay even if there aren’t many of us left.”