Iraq’s second-largest city served as a stronghold for the Islamic State group from 2014 until 2017, when heavy fighting and air strikes by coalition forces ended the group’s occupation but levelled much of the city.
“This neighbourhood was at the heart of the fighting,” says Fr Poquillon in the old city of Mosul. “We had to spend a lot of time removing rubble and explosive devices.”
The Al-Saa’a church was used by Islamic State, also known as Isis, as a jail. “During the occupation, our convent was a place of suffering for many,” says Fr Poquillon.
Even the Christians who have returned to attend university or work commute from Kurdistan every day. They don’t trust the security situation enough to stay the night
Before the sectarianism that emerged following Saddam Hussein’s ousting and the rise of Islamic State, Mosul was home to religious and ethnic minorities including Christians, Kurds, Turkmen and Yazidis.
Despite four years passing since Mosul’s liberation, many of these groups do not believe that the predominantly Sunni city is safe for return, and have little incentive to do so while the pace of reconstruction remains glacial.
In 2003, Al-Saa’a church was full every Sunday, recalls Fr Poquillon – “people had to stand outside in the courtyard”. Now, there are 50-70 families among all the Christian churches in Mosul.
“Even the Christians who have returned to Mosul to attend university or work typically commute from Kurdistan every day,” says Sary Shawi, a Christian from Mosul who fled to Iraqi Kurdistan when Islamic State seized control. “They don’t trust the security situation enough to stay the night.”
Despite the tiny Christian community in Mosul, the UN cultural agency Unesco is leading a project with the Iraqi government to restore the Al-Saa’a church and the al-Tahera Syriac-Catholic church, with funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Unesco project was originally focused on the 12th-century al-Nouri mosque and al-Hadba’ minaret, which Islamic State destroyed with dynamite in 2017. However, following a meeting in Abu Dhabi in 2019 between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the UAE provided additional funding for Unesco to repair the two Catholic churches.
Youths unfurl a poster welcoming Pope Francis above the rubble of a destroyed house next to the ruins of the Syriac-Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira) in the old city of Iraq’s northern city of Mosul in March. Photograph: Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images
Pope Francis and the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Najib Mikhael Moussa (left), near the ruins of the Syriac-Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra), in the old city of Mosul in March 2021. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images
Pope Francis attends a ceremony at Church Square of Hosh al-Bieaa in Mosul, Iraq on March 7th. Photo by Osama Al Maqdoni/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
“We accepted the donation the Emirates made to Unesco to restore our property not because we believe that tomorrow the church will be full of believers, but because it was an opportunity to rebuild trust among people and communities,” says Fr Poquillon.
“We have Muslims working together with Christians at the church and generating an income for their families,” he says. As the Nineveh province struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic and falling oil prices, as well as instability in neighbouring Syria and Iran, there are few other reliable employment opportunities.
Around the corner from al-Saa’a church is the home of Abdullah Ahmed Younes. It was destroyed during the fighting between Islamic State and coalition forces in 2017 and remains full of rubble today. Younes’s seven-year-old son and his father, who lived on the same street, both died during the fighting.
“My family suffered under Isis and I was arrested eight times,” he says, showing The Irish Times a scar on his knee where he says an Islamic State fighter shot him when he once tried to run away.
Younes, a Sunni Muslim, believes that the government and militias are providing a strong security presence around Mosul, but is critical of the lack of compensation and support for local Moslawis to rebuild their homes.
Public projects to revive the city’s infrastructure have also been rare, and blighted by corruption. A plan to build an emergency hospital has failed to materialise, while warning signs about explosive devices remain dotted around the old city. Pope Francis’s visit in March provided some impetus to clear away debris but that quickly stopped when he left, say locals.
Corruption is preventing the private sector from taking risks and creating new jobs, says Fahad Sabah Mansoor al-Gburi, co-founder of the Book Forum. The literary cafe lies beside the University of Mosul in the newer, eastern part of the city.
Since Islamic State fell, Mosul has been an arena for the competing interests of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Iran-backed Shia militia Hashed and an assortment of other religious and tribal paramilitary groups. While Hashed was technically incorporated into the ISF in 2018, its members continue to wear their own uniforms and man their own (lucrative) checkpoints.
We’ve been holding public discussion and debates at the Book Forum... We need to reconstruct minds, as well as streets and buildings in Mosul
Militias are demanding up to $3,000 per month from local businesses for protection and payment for new construction projects in Mosul. “It’s too difficult to make the right choices and we don’t have many choices,” says al-Gburi.
Yet many in Mosul are reluctant to protest. Sunni-led demonstrations against the Shia-dominated Maliki government in 2012 and 2013 preceded the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and many Moslawis, who are predominantly Sunni, still fear that protesting will link them with extremism.
“We’ve been holding public discussion and debates at the Book Forum and also encouraging politicians to accept criticism by the press,” says al-Gburi. “We need to reconstruct minds, as well as streets and buildings in Mosul.”