Ten white buses sped west from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Saturday morning, packed with displaced Assyrians intent on spending Christmas Eve in their mostly Christian hamlet, recaptured in October from Islamic State.
“I miss my church and my town,” said one of the drivers, Ibrahim Behnam, 50.
When they arrived for an 11 a.m. Mass at the Mar Shimoni church, they found a Christmas tree at the entrance, flanked by armed guards. Snipers perched on the roof.
Two days earlier, suicide bombers had attacked a busy market just a few miles west, killing 23 people. But that didn’t stop several hundred of the faithful from making a pilgrimage home.
“I know all of them,” said Father Yacoub Saad Shamas, noting that the church once served 2,000 families.
The priest darted across the church courtyard in his black cassock, welcoming worshipers as gray skies threatened rain.
An elderly woman kissed his hand. Iraqi military commanders greeted him warmly, as did U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ed Matthaidess III, who brought a dozen members of the 101st Airborne Division. The Americans sat at the back of the sanctuary with an interpreter.
As the church filled, women slipped on lacy black mantillas and filed up into the balcony, past singed walls still spray-painted with warnings of bombs, since removed. Windows and crosses were broken, but the crystal chandelier was unharmed, reflecting the glow of the altar as they prayed in Assyrian and Arabic.
“God protect us and clean us from the inside,” the priest intoned. “You are the almighty God, our God forever.”
It was Samira Aziz’s first visit since Bartella was freed. The 50-year-old maid thought of her mother, who had always wanted to be buried here next to her son, a soldier killed years ago in the Iran-Iraq war. She died last year, after the family fled east to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and had to be buried in Irbil.
“I am happy, but with a broken heart,” said Aziz.
Sgt. Maj. Mokhles Salem Yousef, a local police officer, brought his two sons, ages 8 and 5, to see a hometown they barely remember. Before Mass, they stopped by their old house, now empty, their toys destroyed.
The church bells rang and drowned out, for a time, the boom of fighting in nearby Mosul.
Behnam, the bus driver, stepped outside for a break. During the drive in, he was upset to see Shiite Muslim flags hanging from empty homes, installed there by the Iraqi forces who ousted Islamic State from the town.
“We just want the Iraqi flag,” he said.
Behnam feared most of his neighbors would not rebuild. At least 400 homes were destroyed, hundreds more burned and looted, according to the priest. There’s no electricity or running water. Some former residents have already moved abroad.
“I’m not sure I will return,” Behnam said.
He pointed to a statue of a church patriarch, its head knocked off by militants. Beyond that lay the church cemetery, where Islamic State fighters dug into graves and planted a rocket.
Many here fear the fighters could return if Mosul isn’t captured and secured soon. Nearby Gogjali, where the suicide bombers struck this week, was supposed to have been freed Nov. 1.
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SOURCE: Molly Hennessy-Fiske
The Los Angeles Times