Church holds prayers for first time in nearly six years in former IS Syria stronghold

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Syrian Christians held a church service on Saturday [AFP]
Christian worshipers held prayers in a church in eastern Syria’s Deir az-Zour city, which was retaken by the Syrian regime late last year from IS militants.
Christian prayers were held in a former Islamic State group stronghold in eastern Syria this week.

St. Mary’s Church in Deir az-Zour still shows signs of damage from the war that has ravaged the city. Remnants of rockets were strewn across the debris covered floor and windows were blown open in the fighting.

That did not stop a congregation of around two dozen Christians holding their first service in the city for nearly six years.

“Prayer for me is like a new life,” Sally Qasar told AFP.

“It gave me the determination to come back to Deir az-Zour and put up with the poor provision of services, and participate in rebuilding it.”

Rebels seized parts of the city in 2012, and life became unbearable for the Christians after the Islamic State group took over the city.

The militants were notorious for the murder and intimidation of Syrian Christians, which made life in Deir az-Zour all but impossible for them.

A Syrian regime offensive last year led to the recapture of the entire city in November with residents – including Christians – slowly returning back.

Saturday’s service was led by the silver-haired Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Aphrem II and also attended by some Muslim clerics.

“It’s an indescribable feeling for us to pray in a nearly-destroyed church, which serves as a consolation for our hearts and a message of hope to the people of the city to come back and take part in building it anew,” the patriarch said.

A local bishop Maurice Amseeh called on Christians to return to their city.

“The important thing now is for life to come back – for Deir az-Zour’s residents and Christians to come back to it,” he told worshippers.

An estimated 3,000 Christians lived in Deir Ezzor before Syria’s uprising broke out in 2011.

Shadi Tuma, 31, decided to stay in his hometown despite years of clashes.

“The hard times that Deir az-Zour went through pushed the families to leave, but there was a determination inside of me to stay in this city,” he told AFP.

“Deir az-Zour will always have coexistence. Christians will always have a presence here.”

Much of the city remains practically uninhabitable, with buildings destroyed, intermittent electricity supplies and no drinking water.