Iraqi Christians celebrate Easter in town near Mosul for first time since 2014

by WorldTribune Staff, April 16, 2017

Christians in the town of Tel Esqof celebrated Easter on April 16 for the first time since Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the terror group’s “caliphate” from a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014.

“God willing, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ will also mark the return and rising-up of the Christians in Iraq,” said Kyriacos Isho, 75, who was accompanied by his 12 children and grandchildren at Mar Gewargis (St. George) Chaldean Catholic church in Tel Esqof, which is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Mosul.

A priest leads the Easter Mass in Mar Gewargis Chaldean Catholic church in the town of Tel Esqof, Iraq on April 16. /Reuters

Tel Esqof, or Bishop’s Hill in Arabic, did not sustain the same amount of damage as other Christian towns overrun by the terror group three years ago in the plain of Nineveh, according to a Reuters report.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters drove ISIS from Tel Esqof just a week after it had fallen, in August 2014. On April 16, they stood guard at the church.

ISIS jihadists had smashed the church’s windows, though a new cross has now been put up in place of the one the terrorists removed. The church choir sang hymns in Chaldean, a language close to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus.

The region’s Christians were given an ultimatum by ISIS: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or be executed. Most of them fled to the autonomous Kurdish region, across the Zab river to the east.

More than 350 families returned to Tel Esqof, which has been more secure since October when U.S.-backed Kurdish and Iraqi forces launched an offensive to drive ISIS from its last Iraqi stronghold in Mosul, taking back dozens of villages and towns along the way.

Madeleine Roufael, a 70 year-old widow, is still waiting to return to Mosul.

“Thank God,” she said, grateful to be celebrating Easter once again. “God willing, we will return home.”

The battle for Mosul has been raging for six month and Iraqi forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, have moved well into the city. ISIS is surrounded in a few districts on the western side of the Tigris river, but the jihadists there are dug in among civilians, the Reuters report said.

Several hundred thousand people are estimated to remain in areas of the city that are still under the control of ISIS.

“I wish peace for Iraq, for Syria, for Lebanon,” said Aws Hermez, the Tel Esqof church’s deacon, referring to countries with substantial Christian communities. “Peace for the whole world.”