MOSUL -- A bell was inaugurated at a church in Mosul on Saturday (September 18) to the cheers of Iraqi Christians, seven years after the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) overran the northern city.
Dozens of faithful Christians stood by as Father Pios Affas rang the newly installed bell for the first time at the Syriac Christian church of Mar Tuma.
It drew applause and ululations from the crowd, who took photos on mobile phones, before prayers were held.
"After seven years of silence, the bell of Mar Tuma rang for the first time on the right bank of Mosul," Affas told them.
ISIS swept into Mosul and proclaimed the city its "capital" in 2014, in an onslaught that forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in the northern Ninawa province to flee, some to Iraq's nearby Kurdish region.
The Iraqi army drove out the extremists three years later after months of gruelling street fighting.
Since then, hundreds of volunteers seeking to heal societal rifts have launched several local interfaith initiatives to restore damaged churches and other places of worship, rebuild homes, and recover stolen old Christian texts and other artefacts.
These efforts aimed to encourage Iraqi Christians to return to their homes in greater numbers.
The return of the Mosul church bell "heralds days of hope, and opens the way, God willing, for the return of Christians to their city," said Affas.
"This is a great day of joy, and I hope the joy will grow even more when not only all the churches and mosques in Mosul are rebuilt but also the whole city, with its houses and historical sites," he told AFP.
'Back to life'
The bell weighing 285kg was cast in Lebanon with donations from Fraternity in Iraq, a French NGO that helps religious minorities, and transported from Beirut to Mosul by plane and truck.
The church of Mar Tuma, which dates back to the 19th century, was used by ISIS as a prison or a court.
Restoration work is ongoing, and its marble floor has been dismantled to be completely redone.
Nidaa Abdel Ahad, one of the faithful attending the inauguration, said she had returned to her hometown from Erbil so that she could see the church being "brought back to life".
"My joy is indescribable," said the teacher in her forties.
Faraj-Benoit Camurat, founder and head of Fraternity in Iraq, said that "all the representations of the cross, all the Christian representations, were destroyed", including marble altars.
"We hope this bell will be the symbol of a kind of rebirth in Mosul," he told AFP by telephone.
Iraq's Christian community, which numbered more than 1.5 million in 2003, has shrunk to about 400,000, with many of them fleeing the recurrent violence that has ravaged the country.
Camurat said that about 50 Christian families had resettled in Mosul, while others travel there to work for the day.
"The Christians could have left forever and abandoned Mosul," but instead they are very active in the city, he said.
In March, during the first ever papal visit to Iraq, Pope Francis spent a whole day in Mosul, Erbil and Qaraqosh, where he pleaded for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
Pope Francis said the "tragic" exodus of Christians "does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind".
The pope's visit to Mosul affirmed the city's historical identity and religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, Sheikh Muhammad al-Shamaa, an imam and preacher of the Prophet Younis Mosque in Mosul, said at the time.