Christians in northern Iraq celebrate Easter in the shadow of ISIS

Christians in this predominantly Christian town in northern Iraq that has lived in the shadow of the Islamic State group ever since the militants swept across Iraq in June 2014, celebrated Easter with fellow Christians from surrounding villages who were made homeless by the ISIS sweep. 

Father Ghazwan Yusuf Baho celebrated the resurrection of Jesus with his congregation of some 600 Christians, many of them classified as displaced persons marking the holy day away from their homes for a second year. With the frontline of the war with ISIS less than 20 kilometers away, the faithful came together in a town church for Easter on Saturday. 

"Yes, we are celebrating today in Alqosh and we are only 15 kilometers away from the frontlines of the war,” said Baho. “But we tried to show that we are far from the war, because we have hope and we ask God to save us and everyone else from wars, especially in our areas." 

ISIS has come as close as three kilometers from the Alqosh district, but the militants were driven away by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Residents of Alqosh had feared a fate similar to the Kurdish Yezidi town of Shingal, where in August 2014 ISIS went on a spree of murder and mayhem against the minority Yezidis. 

Alqosh, in a region that houses one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, saw its population thin out after the attack by ISIS, which has been bent on killing or enslaving all non-Muslims. But most families returned after the militants were pushed back by the Peshmerga. 

The Alqosh district lies 44 kilometers from the center of Mosul, which has been the ISIS stronghold in Iraq since it was captured by the militants in June 2014. Iraqi forces, backed by coalition air strikes and artillery, and with the Peshmerga playing a supporting role, began an offensive on the Makhmour front Thursday, seen as a first step of an anticipated operation to liberate Mosul. 

After the ISIS attack on Christians in Telkef and Telsqof, Alqosh residents had deserted their homes and sought shelter in the city of Duhok in the Kurdistan Region. Residents say the majority returned after the Peshmerga offensive against the militants. Alqosh is an old town where Christians have lived since ancient times. 

Northern Iraq – including Alqosh – housed the largest concentration of Christians who still spoke Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus. But villages and town scattered around Mosul have been deserted or destroyed over the course of time, most notably by ISIS. 

In Alqosh, five Christian places of worship remain, one of them 1,500 years old. There are still 100 families that have not returned to Alqosh, because they left for Turkey and Jordan in the face of ISIS advances. But residents believe that those families also will eventually return.

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