Displaced Iraqis return home for ‘wartime’ Christmas mass

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For the 300 Christians who braved rain and wind to attend Christmas’s Eve Mass in their hometown, the ceremony evoked both holiday cheer and grim reminders of the war raging around their northern Iraqi town, and the distant prospect of moving back home.

Displaced when the Islamic State group seized their town, Bartella, in August 2014, the Christians were bused into town from Irbil, capital of the self-ruled Kurdish region where they have lived for more than two years, to attend the lunchtime service in the Assyrian Orthodox church of Mart Shmoni.

Torched by IS militants, church-supervised volunteers recently cleaned it up after government forces retook Bartella as part of an ongoing campaign to liberate the nearby city of Mosul and surrounding areas in Nineveh province. But the church is still missing its icons, electrical wiring hangs perilously from its ceiling and most light fixtures are gone. The headless statue of a late patriarch stands in the front yard, its pedestal surrounded by shards of glass.

On Saturday, women joyously ululated when they stepped into the marble-walled church. Almost everyone held a lit candle. Many took photos with their mobile phones. A handful of gas heaters were brought in, but they did little to warm the place on a wet and windy December day.

On one street wall, IS’s black banner remains visible under the white paint. Next to it, someone wrote: “Christ is the light of the world. Bartella is Christian.”

“Our joy is bigger than our sadness,” said university student Nevine Ibrahim, 20, who was in Bartella Saturday for the first time since she, her parents and four siblings left in 2014. They found their house badly damaged. Everything they owned was gone.

“I don’t think we can return. The house can be fixed but the pain inside us cannot,” she said, seated among three of her siblings. “Who will protect us?”

Halfway through the service, conducted in Assyrian and Arabic, it became something of a wartime mass. Roughly a dozen U.S. military servicemen and a 100-man contingent from the Iraqi military led by several top generals descended on the church in a show of solidarity.

Unlike their Americans counterparts, the Iraqi troops came armed. Iraqi soldiers — with one wearing a skull-face balaclava — searched people coming into the church. Inside, soldiers frisked anyone moving close to the Iraqi generals.

The distant thud of explosions could be heard after mass. But none of that seemed to dampen the worshippers’ joyous spirit.

“This is the mass of defiance,” Assyrian priest Yacoub Saady told the congregation at the end of the service. “We, the Christians, are the oldest component of this country. We are staying put and no power can force us to leave.”

His words, however, were more hopeful than realistic. The Bartella Christians attending Saturday’s Christmas Mass spoke of the community’s woes and their slim hopes of returning home.

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