An Iraqi church damaged and defaced by the Islamic State in 2014 has been rededicated for the parish's celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, just as the terrorist group that had sought to crush Christians and those opposing its tyrannical way of life is showing signs of stirring again.
The Syriac Catholic Church of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah in the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh welcomed Archbishop Petros Mouche of Mosul, priests, and the local Catholic community to celebrate the solemnity on Aug. 16, Catholic News Agency reported.
Archbishop Mouche rededicated the church's altar, which the terrorist group Islamic State had burned and the restart was heralded..
Also known as Daesh, IS tried to eliminate Christianity in areas under its control, including by destroying churches and forced conversion, Aid to the Church in Need reported.
At the same time central government legislation in Iraq has prompted fears Christian children could be forced to renounce faith.
After renovations and rebuilding, the interior of the church, once charred black by fire, has been painted white in the long process of trying to undo the past.
"All these people do not see the community reborn only as stones, but as faith around Christ who is celebrated in the Resurrection. So, the Resurrection of Christ is the resurrection of the community itself that goes on. Our community has about 800 families," Father George Jahola told Vatican News in an interview published Aug. 15.
Five years ago, on the August Feast of the Transfiguration, the group calling itself Islamic State devastated the city of Qaraqosh in Iraq's Nineveh Plains causing Christians to flee the region.
"In 2014 we left our churches and our homes. The city had about 50,000 Christian inhabitants," Fr. Jahola said.
Now the Christian population in the city has been reduced to half of what it was. About 26,000 Christians have returned to Qaraqosh, Jahola explained.
During their occupation, the Islamic State desecrated the churches in Qaraqosh, in some cases writing battle instructions on church walls.
St. George's Syrian Catholic Church was turned into a bomb factory and used as storage for supplies of deadly chemicals to make powerful explosives.
The church of the Immaculate Conception was used as an indoor shooting range with mannequins as targets, according to Aid to the Church in Need.
The Church of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah was charred black and its bell tower was demolished. "But we never stopped imagining how beautiful our church would be, once fixed," Fr. Jahola said.
Christmas Mass was celebrated in the church in Dec. 2018 during the church's reconstruction. The bell tower was rebuilt in 2019.
"We started the reconstruction project even before the liberation of the city, in the Nineveh Plains, when we were refugees," Jahola said. "We have worked to rebuild houses and communities as believers, because this is the sense of belonging both to a parish and to a community."
IS was driven from Mosul in 2017, and the last remaining town of the original caliphate in Syria fell earlier this year.
However, many Christians who fled the ISIS onslaught in 2014 have not returned to their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh region.
SECURITY THREATS FOR CHRISTIANS AND YAZIDIS REMAIN
Although the territorial IS caliphate had gone, security threats to Christians and Yazidis in the region remain. There are up to 15,000 ISIS fighters estimated to have remained in Iraq, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
And IS is according to global media reports in the process of regrouping and preparing to wreak havoc again.
The New York Times reported August 19 that five months after American-backed forces ousted the Islamic State from its last shard of territory in Syria, the terrorist group is gathering new strength.
It reported that IS is conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp, American and Iraqi military and intelligence officers said.
Though President Donald Trump had hailed a total defeat of IS this year, defense officials in the region see things differently, acknowledging that what remains of the terrorist group is here to stay.