Cardinal hails 'rebirth' of Iraqi Christian town

AFP , Monday 24 Jul 2017

Iraqi Christians attend a mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception on July 24, 2017 in the predominantly Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh (also known as Hamdaniya), some 30 kilometres from Mosul (Photo: AFP)

A French cardinal hailed the "rebirth" of Iraq's devastated main Christian town of Qaraqosh on Monday, where residents are returning following two years of jihadist rule.

Taking part in mass in the town's cathedral, Lyon's Archbishop Cardinal Philippe Barbarin spoke of both "sadness" and "hope" on returning to the town, which he had previously visited just a month before the Islamic State group seized it three years ago.

"I came here on July 29, 2014. It was splendid, magnificent, there were choirs, the church was full," he said.

"To return now and see it again, after so much aggression, so much violence, so much pillage, (to see it) being reborn is both very sad and at the same time full of hope."

Barbarin, in the aftermath of the ouster of IS from its Mosul stronghold, delivered a sermon and gave communion at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Its belltower damaged and its insides marred by flames, the church bears the scars of more than two years of jihadist rule.

After seizing Qaraqosh (also known as Hamdaniya) in August 2014, the jihadists decapitated statues and dumped liturgical books on the floor of the church.

Iraqi forces recaptured the town, around 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the edge of Mosul, in October, just two weeks after launching what was to be a months-long assault on the jihadists' stronghold in Iraq's second city.

Most retaken areas were far from immediately habitable, however.

Months of mine clearing and reconstruction were needed before the town's 50,000 residents, most of whom had fled within days of the jihadist takeover, could return.

But eight months since Iraqi forces ousted IS, the town is slowly coming back to life.

A few hundred families have now come back, shops are reopening and six schools are due to resume operations by mid-August.

Around a hundred people in civilian and military dress attended Monday's mass.

Arriving under the protection of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a local Christian militia, Barbarin and his delegation were greeted by an ululating crowd.

"Cardinal Philippe's visit is a visit of solidarity, which gives us a huge morale boost. It's a sign that there are people outside Iraq... who share the suffering we're going through today in Iraq," said Khalil Moussa, 42.

Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic archbishop of Mosul, said he prayed for "hope in the hearts of all the inhabitants of Qaraqosh and all who are here".

He had "both an infinite sadness and an extraordinary hope for the rebirth of this country, this city, this region".

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