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Iraqis mark Christmas in recaptured jihadist town

BARTALLA: Iraqis take photos with a Christmas tree after attending a Christmas Eve service at the Mar Shimoni church. — AFP

BARTALLA: Iraqi Christians held a Christmas Eve service in a town near Mosul yesterday for the first time since its recapture from the jihadists. The Islamic State group destroyed crosses at the Mar Shimoni church in the town of Bartalla and set it alight, but volunteers worked for days to ready it for the service, the first held here in more than two and a half years.

“We want to deliver the message that we are staying in this country and that these are our roots and our origins,” Father Yaqub Saadi, the church’s priest, told AFP. IS seized Bartalla and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in the summer of 2014, leaving Christians with the grim choices of conversion, paying a tax, fleeing or death.

The town was recaptured as part of the massive military operation to retake Mosul, the last IS-held Iraqi city, which was launched on October 17. Worshippers travelled in buses from Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Arbil to Bartalla for the service, which was held with security forces deployed around the church in a town still marred by smashed buildings and IS graffiti. For Christians from Bartalla, the service was a deeply emotional experience.

“I can never describe… our happiness and everything. We feel like life returned to us,” said Nada Yaqub. “We felt that our cross is still around our necks. No one could take it from us,” she said. Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani Al-Assadi, a senior commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, attended the service, as did Nawfal Hammadi, the governor of Nineveh province, where Bartalla is located.

A group of American soldiers also came, but faced some difficulties when one of their heavy armored vehicles became stuck in a muddy section of a street near the church. While Bartalla and other Christian areas around Mosul have been recaptured from IS, return is still a long way off, with bombs planted by the jihadists still a threat and basic services needing to be restored. Yaqub said that even though her house in Bartalla was destroyed, she still hopes to come back. “God willing, I will return,” she said. — AFP

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