Thousands of Iraqi Christians gathered in Qaraqosh to celebrate Palm Sunday for the first time since the town was liberated from ISIS militants.
A procession of thousands of Iraqi Christians marched through the streets of Qaraqosh (also known as Bakhdida), visiting numerous churches around the town before reaching the Immaculate Church at the centre of the town. For the many Assyrian Christians here carrying crosses, olive branches, Christian symbols or photos of their loved ones lost to ISIS militants over the past years, this is a deeply meaningful event: The first Palm Sunday celebration to take place since Qaraqosh was liberated from ISIS militants.
One of the main Christian communities in Iraq, Qaraqosh suffered immense damage during the occupation of ISIS militants who desecrated all the churches and destroyed any of the artefacts they could find. Those who stayed were subject to brutal mistreatment by the militants. By the time it was liberated in October 2016, the town was a virtual ghost town, its future in doubt. Even a year on, the lingering presence of ISIS militants in the region and in Mosul had dissuaded many locals from returning.
Since then, however, the fortunes of the town have changed significantly. The defeat of ISIS militants in Mosul and the wider Nineveh Plains, as well as the restoration of security, have allowed many of the displaced residents of Qaraqosh to return and breathing life back into the town. Earlier in March, the town observed its first major Mass, joined by many Muslims from Mosul as a show of solidarity. And now, the attendance of thousands of people for the Palm Sunday celebrations highlights that the community here is rebuilding.
Those in attendance spoke defiantly against the depredations of ISIS, vowing to rebuild their community and their hometown stronger than ever. Indeed, many of those in attendance wore traditional garb to symbolise their connection to the lands they had lived on for thousands of years.
Another symbol strongly present here was the olive branch, its meaning clear to everyone in attendance: Peace for Qaraqosh and peace for Iraq.