A 19th-century church in Iraq celebrates the first mass since the defeat of Daesh

Mosul, Iraq: Dozens of worshipers celebrated Mass on Saturday at a church in Mosul, northern Iraq, for the first time since it was restored after it was ransacked by Daesh (Islamic State) militants.

Daesh invaded Mosul and proclaimed it its “capital” in 2014, in an assault that forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in the northern province of Nineveh to flee, some to the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq.

The Iraqi army drove out the militants three years later after months of grueling street fighting that devastated the city.

The Mar Touma Syriac Catholic Church, which dates from the 19th century, was used by the terrorist network as a prison or court.

“It’s the most beautiful church in Iraq,” said Father Pios Affas, 82, a delighted parish priest.
Image credit: AFP

Restoration work is in progress and its marble floor has been dismantled to be completely redone.

In September 2021, a new bell was inaugurated at the church in a ceremony attended by dozens of worshippers.

The 285-kilogram (nearly 630-pound) bell cast in Lebanon rang out with cries of joy on Saturday before the start of mass, an AFP correspondent said.

The service began with congregants filling the church singing hymns as an organist played.

“It’s the most beautiful church in Iraq,” said Father Pios Affas, 82, a delighted parish priest.

Affas also paid tribute to those behind the restoration work which he said has “brought the church back to its former glory as it was 160 years ago”.

Inside the church, ocher and gray marble shine in the nave, where the altar and colonnaded arches have been restored and new stained glass installed.

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Several monasteries and churches are being renovated but reconstruction is slow and the Christian population that fled has not returned.
Image credit: AFP

The terrorists destroyed all Christian symbols, including the holy cross, and parts of the church were damaged by fire and shelling.

Artisans worked diligently to “clean the burnt marble” and restore it, said Fraternité en Irak, a French NGO that helps religious minorities, which helped fund the restoration work earlier this year.

The outbuildings and rooms on the first floor, whose windows have been smashed and where ISIS graffiti can be seen, still need to be repaired.

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Iraq’s Christian population has fallen to less than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Image credit: AFP

Mosul and the surrounding plains of Nineveh were once home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the region.

Iraq’s Christian population has fallen to less than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Nineveh province was left in ruins after a three-year Daesh occupation that ended in 2017 when Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition airstrikes pushed them back.

Several monasteries and churches are being renovated but reconstruction is slow and the Christian population that fled has not returned.

Pope Francis made a historic visit to the region last year.

Jerry B. Hatch