By: John Pontifex
The bells rang out in Mosul for the first time in more than three years when a church in Iraq's second city opened its doors for Christmas Mass. Up to the last minute, plans for the service at St Paul's Church in Mosul's Al-Mundshen suburb hung in the balance - until a group of young Muslims helped clean the church and make it ready - including erecting the cross.
About 400 families - up to 2,000 people - attended the Christmas Eve service, travelling to Mosul from displacement camps near Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq.
It is still unsafe for Christians to go back and live in Mosul, which was only liberated from Daesh (ISIS) - although there are reports of a few families going back.
Presiding at the Mass was Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad. Also taking part was Syriac Catholic Archbishop Butros Moshe of Mosul and - in a sign of growing ecumenical relations - the service was attended by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Douad of Mosul. Muslim representatives were also present at the service, which went ahead amid high security.
Father Najeeb Michaeel, who also took part in the Mass, said: "Let us hope that the light of Jesus may shine in their hearts and bring light to our wounded world."
When Mosul was taken by Daesh in June 2014, almost all of the city's Christians left after Daesh gave them an ultimatum of either converting to Islam or being killed.
For the first time in almost 1,800 years, no Mass was celebrated in the city.
Daesh seized Christian homes, marking them with an Arabic 'n' symbol denoting 'Nazarene' - Christian.
With Daesh now flushed out of Iraq, Aid to the Church in Need is committed to helping Christians return to their towns and villages, rebuilding homes and other vital structures which were badly damaged during the Islamists' occupation.
ACN's work has helped stem the exodus of Christians from Iraq, with numbers reportedly now down to below 250,000.
Read more about ACN here: www.acnuk.org
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