The gardens of the church lay in cinders. Its 4,000-year-old sculptures and iconic stone carvings were defaced, windows smashed and doors ripped out of their frames, clothes and goods strewn about the ground covered in dirt and ash. A hadith, or a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “Cleanliness is half of faith,” is written on the wall of a sleeping area.
Church bells rang in the Assyrian village of Karemlash, in the Hamdaniyah district of Mosul’s outskirts for the first time since militants took control of the village and expelled its residents. Today, Father Paul Thabit returned to the church where he is the parish priest to find the remnants of what has been converted into an operations base by Daesh.
“I can't describe my joy. My hopes have been realised,” said Father Thabit. “I always held onto hope that we would return — and today it came true.”
The Church of the Holy Saint Mart Barbara had been overtaken by Daesh earlier this year. Twenty-seven kilometres east of Mosul, the unassuming village in the Assyrian Christian region of the Nineveh Plains is just close enough to the main highway from Erbil to seem within the safe zone, but just close enough for the militants, based in Mosul, to make a grab for it.
As Iraqi tanks rolled into the town, they found a ghost town. Empty of civilians, the village appeared to be used solely as an outpost for Daesh to run car bombs out of — evidenced by a still-smoldering pickup truck sitting just outside the front gates where the Iraqi flag now flies. Officers of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) said that fighters had fled without mounting a resistance, leaving behind their weapons and equipment and attempting to burn the stone houses.
On Wednesday, Iraqi army minesweepers were sweeping through the village house by house to clear the area of buried mines and booby traps, which have been a signature leftover seen in towns abandoned by Daesh.
Inside the church, Daesh members had burrowed through a hill to create a labyrinth of five tunnels, each about two metres wide, for weapons storage, sleeping, and to escape through the back of the church behind the hill and out of the village.
“They were using the church for everything — for sleeping, for relaxing, for hiding from airstrikes,” said Nasser Hussein Diab, an ISF platoon sergeant, as he pushes aside a dusty sofa as wide as one of the tunnels. “They made sniper positions, a bomb-making workshop, a bakery, a well for water, whatever you want.”
As Father Thabit toured the destruction around the church, a spontaneous ceremony started to form when a preacher from the local Shia mosque stopped by to greet him, followed by a throng of soldiers beckoning to take a selfie with the returning imam. One officer brought over an Iraqi flag, and the two men’s candid conversation turned into impassioned speeches to the crowd of soldiers and press. Smiling toward a cross laden with flowers, he spoke with a hearty bellow, half to the imam, and half giving a sermon.
“We put up this cross today to show we are united, and that we want to live in peace,” Father Thabit said.
“Sunni, Shia, Assyrian, Yazidi, all the minorities of Iraq — there is no difference between us.”
Author: Shawn Carrie