Iraq Church Used As Shooting Range By ISIS Jihadis

The Church of the Immaculate Conception was left damaged and scarred after two years of ISIS rule.Reuters

As Iraqi Christians begin to return to their homes to asses the damage left in the wake of Islamic State, they have found churches desecrated, burned and grafittied.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, 20 miles from Mosul, is charred, the altar ruined and broken glass litters the floor.

One local Christian, Manal Matti, told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) of seeing mannequins strewn across the church grounds, riddled with bullets.

Militants had used the church as a shooting range.

A cross is seen on the damaged altar at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.Reuters

In 2015, witnesses said churches in Qaraqosh were being used as torture chambers, with detained Christians forced to convert to Islam.

The St George Syrian Catholic church in the town was also taken over by ISIS, who used it as a bomb factory. Statues have been destroyed and entire ceilings pulled down, and instructions for battle are scrawled on the walls. Hundreds of bombs and grenades remain in the building.

Father Sharbil Eeso, priest of the church, was forced to leave Qaraqosh in August 2014 when ISIS overran the town. He recently visited St George's, but though it's now been liberated, the clean-up cannot yet begin.

"We are not allowed to clear up the mess yet," he told ACN. "First, the damage needs to be assessed carefully and documented thoroughly, and that can only start when the city is safe. Last week, a jihadist emerged from the tunnel system which IS has built underneath the city. The red brigade of the army immediately shot and killed him: the boy was about thirteen years old."

But though it will be a long while before Qaraqosh is safe enough for residents to return, Father Sharbil is optimistic that it will once again be a thriving heartland for Iraq's Christians. It was once home to the largest Christian population in the country.

"Despite all the damage, I have hope for the future," he said. "If our security is guaranteed, Christians can continue to live in Iraq. European Christians could do their best to keep us safe. I want to return to Qaraqosh when there is electricity and water again, although I think that safety is the main condition for returning."

Before the Iraq invasion in 2003, there were around 1.3 million Christians in Iraq. Some estimates put the current population at around just 200,000.