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Iraq churches rebuilt after ISIS destruction

Iraq’s Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

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Cymbals, prayers and Chaldean Catholic liturgy resounded on Friday in Mosul’s Saint George monastery, where Iraqi faithful marked the restoration of two churches destroyed by ISIS in their former stronghold.

Dozens gathered in one of the monastery’s churches that have been rebuilt in stone six years after ISIS pulverized them, in a city home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

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It is the latest sign of a slow return to normality in Iraq’s second city.

Mosul was left in ruins after three years of ISIS occupation which ended in 2017 when an Iraqi force backed by US-led coalition air strikes pushed them out.

“We have old memories in this monastery,” said Maan Bassem Ajjaj, 53, a civil servant who moved to Arbil, capital of the neighboring autonomous region of Kurdistan, to escape the terrorists.

“My son and daughter were baptized here,” he said. “Each Friday, Mosul’s Christian families would come here.”

The US Department of State funded the project, which also had support from a Christian non-governmental group, L’Oeuvre d’Orient, according to Samer Yohanna, a superior of the Antonian order of Chaldean monks.

He told AFP that the terrorists destroyed 70 percent of the monastery the year after they occupied Mosul in 2014 and declared the establishment of an Islamic “caliphate.”

The ISIS onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in Nineveh province surrounding Mosul to flee.

Iraq’s Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

On a visit to Iraq in March, Pope Francis prayed outside another ruined church, one of at least 14 which ISIS destroyed in Nineveh.

Although the churches have been repaired, other parts of the centuries-old monastery still need restoration.

“You can see walls that are still standing but are weak and which need to be reinforced,” Yohanna said.

Chaldean Bishop Thabet Habib, from the Al-Qosh diocese, said further work was needed so the entire monastery “can regain its splendor.”

Last month, Mosul’s Muslim community celebrated with a ceremony to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed at the historic Al-Nuri mosque, which too was severely damaged by ISIS but is also being restored.

Read more: Former ISIS stronghold of Mosul in Iraq sees church receive new bell