10/31/2016, 09.36
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First Masses held in Qaraqosh cathedral devastated by Islamic State

The Syrian Catholic Archbishop visited the most important Christian city of Iraq, recently wrested from the jihadists. Qaraqosh bears the "scars" of the fighting. Need to de-mine land strewn with unexploded bombs before his people can return. Rebuilding infrastructure a priority. Republished courtesy of L'Orient-Lejour.

Erbil (AsiaNews / Olj) - The thick layer of soot covering the walls of the church is not enough to hide the word "Islamic State" scrawled in graffiti. Some tiles have crumbled under the heat of fire, the pews were overturned and parts of the roof have collapsed, but the Immaculate Conception Cathedral still stands proudly in the center of Qaraqosh. After more than two years of Islamic State (SI) occupation jihadists for the echo of hymns in Aramaic can once again be heard throughout in Iraq's most important Christian city.

Msgr. Petros Mouche, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Kirkuk and the whole Kurdistan, says "this church is a symbol for us." "I tell you clearly - he adds - if we had not found as it is now, if it had been really destroyed, the Qaraqosh people would not want to return." Accompanied by four priests, the archbishop returned to Qaraqosh yesterday for the first Mass since the fall of the city and the flight of its inhabitants. And in his sermon he made a direct reference to those who burned the city where he was born 73 years ago.

"We have gathered here today to clean up this city from all traces of IS, the hatred of which we have all been victims," ​​adds the prelate. "There are no great men and little men, there are no kings and slaves. This mentality must disappear " he continues, the gaze of his blue eyes falling on every member of his audience formed by a handful of soldiers of the Christian militias and political leaders. Soon, the smell of incense mixes with the smell of ash, while the crunch of feet on the burned wooden pieces resonates in the aisles.

Teeming with soldiers but emptied of its inhabitants, the city released about a week ago bears the scars of several days of fierce fighting. Burned cars rest in piles of rubble in front of facades of houses riddled by bullets and blackened by the flames. Occasionally some gunfire still resonates and the roar of the coalition planes is never far away. For Fr. Majeed Hazem, broad shoulders wrapped in a long black dress, it seems certain that this first Mass marks "a new beginning and will show the world the strength of Christians, despite the injustice."

"Deep in their hearts ..."

Under one of the arches of the courtyard outside the cathedral, hundreds of shrubs cover the ground. At the other end, there are barely standing mutilated mannequins: the hall was used by jihadists as a shooting range. "They do not respect anything," grumbles Imad Michael, aged 71, who entered the ranks of the Security Unit of the Nineveh plain, a Christian militia that acts as a police outpost in the ghost town. "In truth, they are not Muslims but infidels," says Imad Michael raising his Kalashnikov into the sky. Forty years younger than him, Michael Jelal, with his assault weapon on his shoulder and fatigue in his eyes, now hopes for a quick return of the inhabitants.

"Before I had many friends - sadly points out the 21 year old militant - but they are all gone and moved abroad".

"Many humanitarian organizations came to visit us - adds Fr. Michel, leaning on a bent lamppost - and proposed to move to Lebanon, Australia or Canada, but I refused. We want our families to come back here, we also want those who have left for foreign countries to come home". However, before any of this can happen the land must be wept for unexploded mines, which IS littered the ground with as they fled. A nearby church, where they were stacks of metal tubes and bags of potassium nitrate piled up, was used as a workshop to produce [homemade bombs].

"Deep in their hearts, people want to return but want first of all to be rebuild infrastructure," said Msgr. Mouche, before taking to the road again, this time in the direction of the city of Erbil, where he still lives in exile. "And before we rebuild the infrastructure – he adds - the area must be made safe. We know very well that the city is littered with landmines ".

On the way back, the convoy accompanying the archbishop crosses the street where there are a dozen cars parked behind the trench which, just a week ago, served as the front line. The road leading to Qaraqosh is still strictly forbidden today for civilians, despite the protests of some residents who already hoped to go back home. "My house was burned, I just want to see it," sighs a father of ten children, who has not been able to go home for over two years. "I'll try again tomorrow," he adds, with a sad smile.

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