For the first time since the Islamic State seized most of the Nineveh province in northern Iraq over the summer, a Christian mass was successfully held at a church in a small Iraqi village nearly 20 miles north of the ISIS stronghold of Mosul this past Sunday, Iraqi News reports indicate.
Although reports coming from Iraqi news outlets originally said that the mass was held at the Mar Yacob Church in the Christian village of Telskuf, Father Paulus Thabit Makku, a Chaldean priest in Mosul, told Fides News that the Eucharist was held at the only other church in Telskuf, Saint Georges Chaldean church.
"We celebrated the Eucharist this Sunday in one of the Nineveh province's villages – the first time since locals were forced out last August by ISIS jihadists," Father Makku said.
Father Makku further added that he and many other Christian refugees from the town, all of whom were men living as refugees in Kurdistan, had yearned to return to the village, especially after Kurdish peshmerga liberated the town from ISIS control this August.
Although the town has been free of ISIS control for about three months, ISIS still has strong control in neighboring villages and Mosul, so the town is not particularly safe for Christians to live in. But, Makku said he and the men, even if for just a few hours, wanted to return to the church to ring the church bell and and bring some life back into the house of God.
After the mass concluded, the men returned to their refugee camp in the North.
"It was a way for us to express that we will not leave our land. We live in hope that we will soon return to our homes, villages and churches," Makku said.
The Islamic State has captured most of the Ninevah province with its military advances starting in June. Although Telskuf has been liberated, those villages that are captured by ISIS militants are subjected to cruel persecution. People must submit to ISIS' radical brand of Islam or face taxation or death. Once they capture the towns, ISIS militants are said to first take control of church and other religious buildings and tear down the crosses to replace them with the Islamic State's black flag.
The Kurdish peshmerga forces have fought to liberate Christian, Yazidi and other religious minority villages so that people can return to their homes and families. But like Telskuf, when some of these villages are liberated, people are fearful to return either because ISIS is still in control in neighboring areas or they believe ISIS militants have rigged their homes with booby traps and explosives.
A militia made up of Iraq's Christians, called the Iraq's Assyrian Patriotic Party, has also been established to win back Christian villages. Last week, with the help of the peshmerga, the party raised its flag in victory after liberating the Northern Iraqi town of Bakufa from ISIS control.
"We want to take our cities back from the Islamic State," one Assyrian Patriotic Party member named Tabya told The Scotsman. "We want to protect the Christian villages. No one wants their home, life and land taken from them; no one wants this. I am doing this not just for me but for the Christians of my country."