A group of Muslims helped make it possible to reopen a church for Christmas Midnight Mass in Mosul, Iraq's second city which was only recently liberated from Islamic State, it has emerged.
The leading Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported that church bells rang out in Mosul for the first time in more than three years for the service at Mar Pulse Church in Mosul's Al-Mundshen suburb on Christmas Eve, after plans for the re-opening hung in the balance until the last minute.
But the intervention by a group of young Muslims who helped clean the church and make it ready – including erecting the cross above the altar – meant that the service could go ahead.
As well as the Muslims, around 400 families – up to 2,000 people – attended the service, travelling to Mosul from displacement camps near Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq, according to ACN.
The charity said that it was still unsafe for Christians to go back and live in Mosul, despite a few families reportedly returning. The service took place amid high security.
But ACN is committed to helping Christians return to their towns and villages, rebuilding homes and other vital structures which were damaged during the Islamists' occupation, and the charity's work has helped stem the exodus of Christians from Iraq, with numbers leaving reportedly now down to below 250,000.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad presided at the Mass. And in a sign of growing ecumenical relations, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Butros Moshe of Mosul also took part and the service was also attended by the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Douad of Mosul.
Father Najeeb Michaeel, who also took part in the Mass said of those gathered: 'Let us hope that the light of Jesus may shine in their hearts and bring light to our wounded world.'
In June 2014, almost all of the Mosul's Christians left after Islamic State gave them an ultimatum of either converting to Islam or being killed, and for the first time in almost 1,800 years, no Mass was celebrated in the city.
Islamic State seized Christian homes, marking them with an Arabic 'n' symbol denoting 'Nazarene'.