On Sunday 30 October, a few Christians gathered inside a fire-blackened church in the town of Qaraqosh, northern Iraq, and held the first communion service since Islamic State (IS) took control of the town in 2014. Retreating IS militants had set fire to the church when Iraqi government and Kurdish forces advanced on Qaraqosh last week as part of the wider campaign to retake the city of Mosul.
Qaraqosh, also known as Hadaniya in Arabic and Baghdeda in Aramaic, was the largest Christian town in Iraq in 2014, when 95% of its 50,000 residents were Christians. When IS entered the town, Christians fled en masse, fearing they would be killed if they did not convert to Islam. Some travelled significant distances on foot to reach safety in Erbil. During their occupation, IS militants destroyed some of the churches in Qaraqosh, while others were converted into mosques or used as prisons and logistical command centres.
The damage to churches in Qaraqosh has been replicated across liberated towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain, historically the heartland of the Christian community in Iraq. In Karemlash, south-east of Mosul, a church had been used as a bomb-making workshop. Historic carvings, thousands of years old, were defaced by militants who graffitied a saying from the hadith (traditions recording Muhammad’s life and teachings) on the walls of the building. At the time of writing, the Christian village of Batnaya and the town of Bartilla have also been taken back from IS; the church in Bartilla was also set on fire by IS, but was not destroyed.
Iraqi Christians who fled their towns and villages two years ago remain uncertain whether to return to their homes. Christians have expressed concern that even if they go home they will still face discrimination and potential violence from the Muslim majority. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are now advancing on Mosul itself, where there are still an estimated 1.5 million civilians, although despite media claims to the contrary, it is extremely unlikely that any Christian community still exists within the city.