More than three years ago, ISIS militants took down the cross that stood on top of the Chaldean Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Mosul. The fall of the church and its conversion into a militant base was one of the most iconic images that followed the group’s invasion of Mosul in 2014, signalling the beginning of one of the most arduous times for Chaldean Christians across the city and the wider Nineveh Plains.
With the liberation of the city, a group of volunteers and volunteer organisations have joined forces to restore the church, the second largest in all of Iraq, to working condition. The restoration efforts are organised by civil society groups such as Nineveh Peace, Mosul Peace, Nineveh Youth Units, which are made up of both Chaldean Christian and Muslim volunteers. Their goal is to repair the church, recover what can be recovered and remove all traces of militant propaganda and desecration. The volunteers here hope that the restoration of the church will be followed by many similar restorations across Iraq, signalling to the displaced Chaldean Christians of Iraq that they can return to the Nineveh Plains.
For the Christians in Mosul, the renovation and reopening of the church is a source of relief. The church, located in the central district of Tel Keppe, was the heart of the community here and many of them mourned its loss. The few Christians who stayed behind say that they tried to protect the church and its artefacts best they could, occasionally sneaking in to reminisce. In doing so, however, they took a great risk and often had to resort to deception about their intentions as to why they were in the church or were otherwise forced to denounce their faiths. Visiting the church openly for the first time in over three years and playing church music once again is a welcome development.
The cooperation between Christians and Muslims in the restoration of the church has been cited as a welcome and much-needed example of tolerance in Iraq. Indeed, it is one of the many civil society initiatives launched across Iraq to help reconstruction and foster a sense of national unity. However, there is still much to be done. The Christians of Iraq were already a vulnerable community, their numbers diminishing steadily since 2003. The rise of ISIS has hit these communities particularly hard, and many Christians towns and cities such as Qaraqosh remain devastated. The restoration of the religious sites, something that has been long demanded by Iraqi Christians, is nevertheless a welcome development and a promising sign for the future.