First mass in Qaraqosh, the liberated city

Qaraqosh is the symbolic city of Christians in Iraq, Laurence Desjoyaux, Garagosh, 2016-10-31

77317_img-1436First Mass at Al Taheera Cathedral, Qaraqosh. Bishop Petros Mouche and Bishop Majeed (right). © Laurence Desjoyaux

Sunday, October 30, for the first time since the capture of the city of Qaraqosh by the Islamic State group, Bishop Petros Mouche, Syrian Catholic Bishop of Qaraqosh, returned to his city. He celebrated Mass at Al Taheera Cathedral.

77319_iraq-garagosh-first-mass-3He knelt for a long time on the steps of Al Taheera (Immaculate) Cathedral, kissing the ground covered in ashes and crushed bricks. A week after the liberation of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, by the 9th Iraqi army, Bishop Petros Mouche returned to his city to celebrate mass.

The sound of cannon fire continued to echo. The Islamic State group’s fighting against Islamist terrorists continues in the village of Minara, just five kilometers from the town of Qaraqosh. Gunshots and explosions were still heard sporadically in some areas of the city. Inside the cathedral, completely burnt down, covered with ash and soot from floor to ceiling, a makeshift altar has been placed: a wooden table built on large stones found among the rubble, a corporal, nine small candles and a simple cross. The bishop went around the church to burn incense and sprinkle it with holy water, brought from Lourdes, to purify the looted place.

The last mass celebrated in this church took place on the afternoon of August 6, 2014., the day of Epiphany. “When we renovate the church, we will offer a Mass of Consecration,” Bishop Petros Mouche said. Chants in Syrian echoed through the chaotic church. The soldiers came and went, they watched the ceremony. In his very brief homily on Peter’s profession of faith, the bishop underlined two points: the importance of believing in the grace of God and in the unity of Christians. An obscure message addressed to the Christians of the various legions, who were fighting over the right to secure the city of Qaraqosh after the liberation of the city from the Islamic State.

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77319_iraq-garagosh-first-mass-2This church is a real symbol for us, if it is destroyed we don’t know if we will have the strength to come back.

A ray of sunlight passed through the broken and blackened windows of the church. The Arabic Creed that resonates at this time has a very special meaning. Islamic terrorists believe they can erase the centuries-old Christian presence here by destroying crosses, massively destroying icons and burning down churches. In the church there is still a charred ladder with which a cross was lowered from above. Today’s mass, two years after the capture of the city, proved them wrong. Bishop Petros Mouche explained, “My presence here today is a sign of encouragement for all the Christians in this city who have been away from their homes for two years now. When I come here, I want to tell them that one day they can come back here…” He said that despite the fire, the church was still standing. “This church is a real symbol for us, if it is destroyed we don’t know if we will have enough strength to come back.”

After Mass, bishops and priests Everyone following him wanted to take a look around Qaraqosh. They wanted to estimate the extent of the damage to the city. Everything here brings back memories. “Come see my room!” Father Abouna Nehad said he was one of the priests living in the nearby presbytery of Al-Taheera Cathedral. To access the upper floor, you have to go through the rubble, watch out for the ropes on the ceiling. The church was systematically demolished. It still smells burnt. Like everywhere else, not a single crucifix was spared and even the rosaries that adorned dozens of church steeples in the city were demolished. Priest Nehad picked up an iron cross broken in half. “They are afraid of the cross! he said.

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77319_iraq-garagosh-first-mass-7Someone brought the bishop a burnt bishop’s staff and some clothes. He smiled and put on his newly found crown.

A place further away, in the heart of Saint-Paul, where seminary classes and seminars are buzzing. Two hours ago, two elderly women from Qaraqosh were found in good health in a townhouse. They stayed for two years with members of the Islamic State. The soldiers embrace the women who survived this miracle.

The tour of the desolate and ravaged city continues, We went to Mar Behnam and Sarah Church, whose bell tower was hit by mines. The bishop visited a seminary in the neighborhood which could not be entered yesterday because snipers were hiding in the distance. This is where he has lived since becoming a bishop in 2011, his headquarters in Mosul is too dangerous. The grass field inside the black facility has burned. The fountain was destroyed, the library reduced to ashes, the rooms of the priests and seminarians destroyed. Bishop Petros Mouche returned to his office, all the books were still there, but personal effects and photos were burned. In her bedroom, the clothes were still in the closet. Someone brought the bishop a burnt bishop’s staff and some clothes. He smiled and put on his newly found crown.

Take a tour of the churches of Mar Yohana and the church of Mar Yacoub give some hope. As elsewhere, the statues and crosses were damaged, but the building remained intact. The terrorists had already stacked the benches in half, but they obviously didn’t have time to burn them…

Leaving, Bishop Petros Mouche said: “It takes months to rebuild, but above all the mines must be destroyed to avoid accidents.” When we left the city, we believe that it took a lot of courage for the people here to come back to this dead city, to write a new story for the Christians of this Nivine delta.