07/03/2021, 10.27
IRAQ
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Mosul Parish priest: Celebrating the Eucharist to move beyond Isis violence and build the future

The Syrian Catholic Church of Mar Thomas, in the right bank of the city, the feast of the patron saint is solemnly celebrated. Fr. Pius Afas: rebuilding places of worship is an "important step." Young Muslims also contributed to the recovery of the building. The history of the local community custodied in a book written by the parish priest.

Mosul (AsiaNews) - "The past and the violence of Isis are behind us, we must look to the future" and "rebuilding places of worship" is an "important step", as seen in the church of Mar Thomas. 82-year-old Fr Pius Afas, a priest from Mosul, celebrates today, July 3rd, a solemn mass in conjunction with the patronal feast to mark the official reopening of the church in which he was baptized, ordained priest and then parish priest for many years.

He tells AsiaNews how the militants had marked the churches to blow them up, “but fortunately in this case the dynamite did not explode. We want to celebrate, to thank God for safeguarding it."

The Syrian Catholic church of Mar Thomas stands on the right side of Mosul, a metropolis in northern Iraq that was once a stronghold of the Islamic State (IS, formerly Isis). The place of worship, spared from the iconoclastic and devastating fury of the men of the "caliphate", has undergone major restoration work to return it to worship, one of the first Christian buildings to become viable again in the western sector of the city, on the right bank of the Tigris. And for today's service are expected more than a hundred faithful, in addition to several local church dignitaries, from Dohuk, Ankawa (Christian neighborhood of Erbil), Qaraqosh and other towns in the plain of Nineveh.

Fr. Afas, who had also been kidnapped (then freed) by Islamic extremists, recalls "the first Mass that I celebrated in the church of Mar Thomas after the liberation was on July 3, 2018, precisely on the feast of St. Thomas. A solemn celebration, in a building that still bore the signs" of the passage of jihadist militias.

"The we repeated same celebration a year later, then on the occasion of the elevation of the cross on the dome. However, today's mass marks the official reopening, in the presence of the archbishop and embellished with icons and statues."

The historic place of worship dates back to the mid-1800s and was plundered by militiamen, who had forced Christians (such as Yazidis, other Muslims, Sabeans) to flee to a safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan. After the looting, which took place during the summer of 2014, the church of St. Thomas poured in a state of neglect, risking ruin, until a group of Christians, with the help of young Muslim volunteers, began restoration work.

The official mass (others have been celebrated in recent years, since the fall of Isis) of reopening of the church comes just over seven years after the anniversary of the rise of Islamic State jihadists in June 2014. A domination that lasted until the summer of 2017 and perpetrated with violence and terror, as well as the devastation of symbolic places such as the al-Nouri mosque and the church of al-Saa (Our Lady of the Hour). The two places of worship, Muslim and Christian, are symbols of rebirth thanks to the project funded by UNESCO and the United Arab Emirates with the program "Reviving the spirit of Mosul by rebuilding its historical monuments".

"The atmosphere is beautiful - says the priest - and the young Muslims, who have contributed to the restoration of the church, are as welcoming and enthusiastic as we are. They ask when the bell will start ringing again", relocated thanks to the contributions allocated by the French NGO "Fraternité en Irak" and "when the museum will reopen".

He recalls "I myself am originally from Mosul, a parishioner of this church where I was ordained, where I celebrated my first mass. My whole life is linked to Mar Thomas" and seeing it return to its former glory "is a very emotional for me".

In the city "there are only about thirty Christian families, none on the right bank of the Tigris River, and the work of rebirth and reconstruction of the social, economic and cultural fabric is still long. Young Christians are still afraid to return, they still do not feel safe."

"We need to rebuild a community - concludes the priest - and to do this it still takes time and patience. In the meantime, we continue with the celebrations, to keep alive the places of worship that testify to the Christian presence in this region and that I myself have described in an illustrated book. The book traces the history of the local community since 1863 and is being presented to the public today at the end of Mass. Because in order to build the future, it is essential to look at the past, especially in a reality like ours rich in history”.

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