Photographs and Text by RUKMINI CALLIMACHIAPRIL 17, 2017
QARAQOSH, Iraq — Islamic State militants overran the Christian town of Qaraqosh nearly three years ago, smashing every crucifix they found and using the walls of churches for target practice. Residents fled by the thousands, and the few who stayed were forced to spit on images of the Virgin Mary.
This weekend, my colleagues and I attended Easter service in Qaraqosh, which has long been a center of Christian life in Iraq, hoping to find signs of rebirth. Instead, we drove through what looked like a ghost town.
I have been traveling to Iraq frequently over the past few months, and when I visit Muslim districts in areas of eastern Mosul that were recently liberated from the Islamic State, I mostly feel hopeful for the future of the region. Life is returning.
By comparison, Christian districts like Hamdaniya, Karamless and Qaraqosh, which were liberated around five months ago, remain largely empty. Shops in Hamdaniya still bear graffiti left by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which occupied the area for nearly two and a half years.
The graffiti on one building read: “The Islamic State will remain.”
When I ask Iraqi Christians why they haven’t returned to the town, I get conflicting answers. Some say they feel unsafe and don’t trust the government to protect them. They point to the lack of electricity and running water. Others say they are awaiting compensation from the government for their destroyed homes. Still others say they won’t go back until there is a political agreement that gives Christian areas a semiautonomous status.
On Sunday, I visited one of the oldest and largest churches in northern Iraq, the sanctuary of St. George in Qaraqosh. Inside the grounds, security officials checked bags, and soldiers with automatic weapons stood sentry on the church’s roof.
We were told to come early because of the significance of this Easter, the first to be celebrated in Qaraqosh since the Islamic State was flushed out of the town. But when the service started, the majority of the pews were empty.
During the service, I felt the lingering presence of the Islamic State.
A pillar on the way to the altar included the phrase ???? ????, or “God is great,” scrawled on its surface in black paint.
On a part of the church’s nave, the militants left the phrase ??????? ????? ?? ??? ????, which means, “We meet in heaven, God willing.”
On another marble pillar, there were markings of what looked like a car, numbers and positions, scrawled in childlike strokes, as if the militants had simply wanted to deface the surface.
Twenty minutes into the service, only seven pews had worshipers, in a church that had standing-room-only crowds on major holy days before the arrival of the militants.
Iraq’s Christian community has been shrinking rapidly since the American invasion in 2003. There were about 1.5 million Christians living in the country that year, yet by the time the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq in 2014, only about 400,000 remained.
The church in Qaraqosh bore the scars not just of occupation, but also of fighting. As we entered its grand entryway, we ducked under damaged panels that dangled from the ceiling.
Names of Islamic State fighters, probably those who had been stationed in the church, were written on a marble wall next to one of the church’s gorgeous friezes.
In the many buildings I have visited that were once occupied by the Islamic State, this has seemed to be a habit of the militants: Scribbling their noms de guerre on the walls in marker, ink or spray paint, like teenagers in a bathroom stall.
Signs of the occupation could also be felt in the church’s courtyard, where one of the walls looked as if it had been used for target practice. We found the dummies the militants had been aiming at lying on their sides.
We left the Easter service an hour after it began. Our parting view spoke to the desolation.