Bittersweet Christmas for Iraqi Christians near Mosul

Qaraqosh (Iraq) (AFP) - Iraqi Christians celebrated a bittersweet Christmas in a town near Mosul from which they had fled over two years before, in a church still marred by damaged crosses and jihadist graffiti.

Sunday's mass at the Mar Yohanna church in Qaraqosh east of Mosul brought residents home for Christmas, but did not change the fact that they are still displaced and longing to return permanently.

"This feeling is indescribable... we were waiting for it," Imama Behnan, one of the worshippers, said of the mass, the church bell ringing as she spoke.

But she later began crying over what was lost when the Islamic State jihadist group overran the area in 2014, prompting its population to flee en masse.

"I am crying for Qaraqosh, crying for our house, for our place," said Behnan, who wore a scarf wrapped around her head and a crucifix around her neck.

IS "forced us from our houses and stole our money, and after we returned, after the liberation, we saw that they burned (the houses)," she said.

Iraqi forces recaptured Qaraqosh from IS as part of a massive military operation aimed at retaking Mosul, the last jihadist-held city in the country, which was launched on October 17.

But when Behnan saw her town for the first time in some two and a half years, it was not the happy scene for which she had hoped.

"We were waiting for liberation, but not this liberation. We were waiting to return and see our houses gleaming, but unfortunately, we saw that they were all burned," Behnan said.

Before the mass, Christian militiamen with Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over their backs swept the area around the church, while others cleaned dust off long-disused pews inside.

But some damage could not be so easily erased.

The bell tower is missing part of its facade and is surrounded by a pile of rubble, while an image of the Virgin Mary inside the church and a statue of her nearby have been defaced.

- 'Need to return' -

A toppled cross lies on the roof of the church, while part of another on the wall behind the altar has been broken off.

And graffiti is still present on some inside walls, including a line that reads "In memory of the soldiers of the Islamic caliphate", and a partly obscured IS slogan: "The Islamic State remains."

But in Qaraqosh, IS ultimately did not remain, making it possible for Christmas mass to be held, albeit with security forces deployed around the church.

"It brings back memories. It was two years for us that we did not attend mass here," said worshipper Rassen Yohanna.

"It feels... like a real Christmas," he said.

Yohanna said he hopes to return home to live in Qaraqosh.

It "is our land and our country and our area", Yohanna said, adding: "Any person hopes to return to his area."

Father Yonan Hanno, who served at Mar Yohanna church prior to the IS assault, said he hopes the mass will be a new beginning, but that the area must be stabilised before true recovery can begin.

"God willing, this mass will be the beginning of new hope, especially because this mass is on Christmas," Hanno told AFP.

But much remains to be done.

"Today, we are happy about the liberation, but this liberation is not enough for the return. Today, security forces are still heavily present in our areas, our area is almost considered a military area," Hanno said.

"If the area is truly stabilised, the people will begin to return to their houses, because there are many people who need to return to their areas to again feel at ease and secure in their homes."

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