After ISIS Defeat , For the First Time in Four Years, Chursches in Iraq Celebrate Christmas

Just one year ago Mosul was the seat of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Iraq , Christians throughout the region enter the holiday generally apprehensive about their place in a turbulent Middle East.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics. The country had about 1.5 million Christians at the start of the 2003 US invasion. Christian aid and advocacy groups believe that number could now be as low as 300,000. Between 70 and 80 Christian families have so far returned “and more are expected to follow soon.

The city of Mosul once had one of the larger Christian populations in the Middle East, but the ongoing warfare in Iraq had caused many Christians to flee by the time ISIS occupied the city in 2014. AFP estimates that around 2,000 Christian families remained in Mosul at that time. When ISIS invaded, they prohibited public Christian worship services and began systematically destroying Christian churches. Almost all of Mosul’s Christian population was either killed or fled the city to escape ISIS’ purges.

Community leaders say a full-fledged return of Christians to their neighborhoods in Mosul and its environs remains unlikely for the foreseeable future.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal. Christmas trees have appeared in market places and Santa Claus has been sighted on the streets of Mosul.

“It might seem strange to hear that a female Santa Claus has appeared in this city,” said seventeen-year old Ghenwa Ghassan. “But I wanted to give the people here a simple gift — to bring Christmas to a place where it had been banished.”

Dressed as Santa, Ghassan distributed toys and school supplies to Christian and Muslim children in the rubble strewn streets of Old Mosul. On Christmas Eve at Saint Paul’s church, Muslims stood with Christian worshippers and local officials amid candles and Christmas trees. Outside, the portrait of a Christian killed under IS rule was displayed as a reminder of the city’s grim recent past.Iraqi forces expelled the jihadist group from Mosul in July after months of ferocious fighting.

During the service, armoured vehicles sat outside Saint Paul’s church and, inside, white sheets covered up bombed-out window frames. Saint Paul’s is the only functioning church in Mosul, and is only open thanks to the efforts of volunteers, the AFP agency reports.

After three years of domination by ISIS, which included killing, abduction and banishment of Christians from Mosul and the surrounding area, the return of Christmas marks a moment of hope that more people may be able to return along with the holiday.