In defiance of Islamic State and other extremists, 300 displaced Iraqi Christians returned to their hometown in northern Iraq to celebrate mass on Christmas Eve.
Bartella is almost unrecognizable to those coming home. It has been shelled and burned during fights between Iraqi government forces and ISIS, but that didn’t stop the Christians from proclaiming that “Christ is the light of the world,” The Associated Press reports.
“This is the mass of defiance,” Assyrian priest Yacoub Saady said at the end of the mass, which was conducted in Assyrian and Arabic. “We, the Christians, are the oldest component of this country. We are staying put and no power can force us to leave.”
After the Iraqi military retook Bartella, volunteers came in droves to clean up the Assyrian Orthodox church of Mart Shmoni; only so much of the damage could be fixed in advance of the service. Wiring hangs from the ceiling and icons are missing, and there are still shards of glass around the property.
About a dozen U.S. servicemembers attended the service about halfway through, joining together with close to a 100 Iraqi troops and a few top generals.
The Christian community in Iraq has been imperiled since 2003, following the U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, who provided protection to the Christians. Unleashed Sunni militants utterly terrorized the Christian community, dropping numbers from 1.5 million Christians in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion to a current figure of only 400,000.
Whether residents will remain in Bartella remains to be seen, as they’ve lived in much safer conditions in Irbil over the last two years. Residents are worried about electricity and water, but more importantly, security.
Masar Jalal, an altar boy at the service, said, “I cried for what has become of the town. I will only come back to live here if there is security.”
Elsewhere in Iraq, specifically on the outskirts of Mosul, churches and communities face the same situation. When ISIS captured Mosul, the group stole jewelry and property from Christians, saying they could pay an extra tax or convert to Islam. Christians, en masse, decided to flee.
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