WITH the Iraqi army now in control of one third of eastern Mosul, and continuing to advance slowly in the face of stiff Islamic State (IS) resistance, Christian families are beginning to visit towns and villages in the vicinity of the city which have been liberated from jihadist occupation.
There were tearful scenes on Sunday when Assyrians entered the village of Karamlis, 18 miles south-east of Mosul, to find the church of St Addai damaged and desecrated. Iraqi army units had forced IS out of the village after several days of heavy fighting, which ended on Saturday.
The returning Christians found that the head had been cut off a statue of the Virgin Mary, pews burned, and much of the interior looted and vandalised. Pillars and other large pieces of masonry littered the floor. Members of the congregation crunched glass under their shoes as they arrived to say prayers at the church for the first time since August 2014, when IS fighters overran the village.
The Revd Thabet Habib rang the church bell before the prayer service. Sahir Shamoun, an athletics teacher, told an Associated Press reporter that the sound of the bell “was amazing, I got goose bumps. The bell for us means a great deal.”
Mr Shamoun and his wife had driven for four hours from Zakho, close to the Turkish border, to check on their home. It was still standing, although many in Karamlis had been damaged or destroyed. All the Shamouns’ furniture and other possessions had been stolen.
Despite his relief that IS had been driven away, Mr Shamoun said that he felt “great sadness. I’m not sure when or if I’ll be back. I think of my children. Will they have a future here?”
Although the defeat of IS eliminates the most obvious and immediate source of insecurity and danger for Christians, the underlying political and sectarian divides within Iraq are as wide as ever. Until a strong central government in Baghdad is able to assert its authority over, and provide protection for, villages such as Karamlis, the threat of individual acts of terrorism carried out by IS fighters who have blended into the civilian population cannot be dismissed.
In addition, the sovereignty of some areas of northern Iraq is contested by the federal government on the one side, and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities on the other. While these issues remain unresolved, uncertainty about the future of the region will continue.
The task of rebuilding the many towns and village on the Nineveh plain that have been ransacked and destroyed by IS fighters will take many years. The imminent return of most Christians to their homes is out of the question. But, in a symbolic gesture to raise morale, Iraqi troops on Monday fixed a makeshift cross on to the dome of St Addai’s, representing one small step on the long path back to normality.