By Mohammed al-Ramahi and Azad Lashkari
BASHIQA, Iraq (Reuters) – The bells have rung out after two years of silence in the Mar Korkeis church in the town of Bashiqa, some 15 km (10 miles) north of Mosul, Islamic State’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters retook the town on Nov. 7, ending two years of rule by the hardline Sunni group which persecuted Christians and other minorities in the Nineveh plains, one of the world’s oldest centres of Christianity.
Women trilled to celebrate the moment when a new crucifix was erected on the church, replacing one that was broken by the Islamic State militants.
The town is largely empty as the Peshmerga have not finished clearing explosives and mines left behind by the insurgents in their fight against U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces who launched an offensive on Mosul on Oct. 17.
“We want people to be patient and not to return here until we completely clear the area, as we want to ensure their safety,” said Peshmerga Brigadier General Mahram Yasin.
After seizing the Nineveh plains in 2014, Islamic State issued an ultimatum to Christians: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most abandoned their homes and fled to the nearby autonomous Kurdish region.
The priest at the Mar Korkeis church, Father Afram, said he would prefer Bashiqa to remain under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and not revert to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, about 400 km (250 miles) to the south.
“Of course we would prefer to be part of the KRG, because of our proximity to the area and because, for the past 13 years, the regional government has been looking after us,” he said.
“Nobody from Baghdad came here to say hello, at all,” since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, he said.
Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD.
The number of Christians has fallen sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 toppling of Hussein, and Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul two years ago saw the city purged of Christians for the first time in two millennia.
From a Mosul mosque in 2014 Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” spanning parts of Iraq and Syria. The recapture of Mosul would mark the effective defeat of the group in Iraq.
(Writing by Saif Hameed; editing by Jason Neely)