In Mosul, adjacent to the Biblical city of Nineveh, four churches representing different denominations occupy a small square surrounded by low-rise houses, testament to the role Iraq’s once flourishing Christian community played, Reuters informed.
Today, all four churches are either damaged or destroyed after Islamic State militants occupied the city from 2014-2017, desecrated many of the buildings and used them to run its administration, including as a jail and a court.
Air strikes as Iraqi forces tried to dislodge the extremist group in fierce fighting did the rest. Those walls still standing are scarred with bullet and shrapnel holes.
“It used to be a bit like the Jerusalem of the Nineveh plains,” said Mosul and Akra’s Chaldean Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel of “Church Square”, the name given to the site that Pope Francis will visit on March 7 during his historic trip to Iraq.
Michaeel fondly recalled how, before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians from different denominations would attend each other’s services on religious festivals.
Those days are gone. Today just one of Mosul’s surviving churches offers a weekly Sunday service to a Christian population that has dwindled to just a few dozen families from about 50,000 people.
Tolerated by former President Saddam Hussein but persecuted by al Qaeda and then Islamic State, Iraq’s Christians number around 300,000, one fifth of the total before 2003.
Some are trickling back after Islamic State’s defeat, but others still see little prospect in staying in Iraq and are looking to settle overseas.