Symbol of rebirth at Iraq's historic al-Nuri mosque

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To the sound of drums, religious chants resounded on Sunday evening for the first ceremony of its kind at Iraq's historic Al-Nuri mosque, which is being rebuilt after damage by extremists.

The city of Mosul's 12th-century mosque, known for its leaning minaret, was severely damaged in 2017. Iraq's army accused the ISIS group of blowing it up.

It is now being rebuilt under a project from the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO.

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“For me it's an extraordinary day. I am joyful,” said Marwan Muafak, 45, a teaching administrator.

“This celebration symbolizes the return of the chant of the muezzin and prayer in this place,” he added. “The residents of Mosul want to get their old lives back.”

Several hundred people gathered at the site to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, in a courtyard decorated with multi-colored lights between the mosque with its gaping windows, surrounded by scaffolding, and the minaret -- only the base of which survived.

It was there, on a stage, that five men in traditional robes banged on their daf, a traditional drum, and chanted to the glory of the Prophet after the celebration began with a communal prayer.

“It's the first celebration organized in Al-Nuri mosque on the occasion of the Prophet's birthday,” said Abu Bakr Kenaan, head of Sunni religious properties in Nineveh province.

“Our joy is immense. Our feelings are indescribable in seeing all these people here.”

Abu Bakr Baghdadi made his only confirmed public appearance in July 2014 at the Al-Nuri mosque, declaring the establishment of a “caliphate”.

Iraq's army and an international coalition forced them out of the northern city in 2017.

Eight Egyptian architects won an international competition to reconstruct the mosque as part of UNESCO's “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative for rehabilitating Iraq's second city and its cultural life.

UNESCO raised more than $100 million for the project, half of it pledged by the United Arab Emirates. The restoration is to be finished by 2023.

“The minaret and the prayer room will be rebuilt just as they were,” a local antiquities official told AFP.

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