Mosul Christians: IS are 'grandsons of Satan'

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Irbil

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Father Paul Thabet Habib: "There cannot be forgiveness without justice"

Almost six weeks after the Iraqi army launched its offensive to drive so-called Islamic State (IS) out of the city of Mosul, it has only regained control of a handful of districts in the east. The BBC's Richard Galpin has been into some of these villages to speak to Christian survivors who are picking up the pieces.

"They are the grandsons of Satan." Basma al-Saoor was in shock after seeing the damage that IS fighters had done to a historic building in the Christian village of Karamles, not far from Mosul.

She was visiting Santa Barbara church with her mother after spending the morning picking through the charred ruins of their home in another Christian village just down the road.

Like Karamles, it had fallen into the hands of the militants two years ago and the entire population had been ordered to either leave or convert to Islam.

Almost all fled to the Kurdish city of Irbil, knowing that if they stayed and refused to convert, they would be killed.

From her bag, Basma pulled out a partially burnt photograph of one of her uncles.

"This is all we have left from our house," she told me.

We were speaking in the darkened chapel, the air thick with dust.

The IS extremists had piled tons of rubble and earth in the claustrophobic room as they dug a network of tunnels under the church, converting it into a military-style base.

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Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Soldiers from the Iraqi army hold an IS flag upside down in a north-east district of Mosul

Now with the men of violence finally forced out, a team of volunteers was hard at work cleaning up the mess before the damage can be repaired.

Their supervisor was Father Paul Thabet, a ruddy-faced man born and brought up in the village, who became a priest three years ago after completing his studies in Rome.

Father Thabet wanted me to see the main church in the village, Saint Addai, where he used to hold regular services until everyone fled.

Inside and outside, IS militants had systematically erased symbols of the Christian faith.

Statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and child angels, all decapitated. The altar riddled with bullets, a priest's tomb ripped open.

Image source, BBC
Image caption,
A defaced Christian statue inside St Addai church in Karamles

For this, Father Thabet told me, there could be no true forgiveness unless those responsible and those who helped them were brought to justice.

He suspects some in the local Sunni Muslim population either supported or joined IS as they moved into the area. And he fears gunmen may still be hiding among them.

Such concerns raise real questions about the future for the Christians in the region, if there can no longer be trust between the two communities.

There are also broader concerns about the long-term consequences of the attempt to defeat IS in Mosul.

The Battle for Mosul

Last week we drove with one of the Iraqi army's top generals Najim al-Jibouri towards a frontline south-east of Mosul.

We wanted to see if the reports were true that the famed archaeological site of Nimrud - once the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire - had been destroyed by IS while under its control.

They were.

On the way there we saw that Shia militias, not the Iraqi army, were manning checkpoints in areas taken back from the IS militants.

The militias have a controversial history. Some have been accused in the past of committing atrocities against Sunni Muslims.

Now they're an integral part of the offensive on Mosul, which is a majority Sunni Muslim city - although they have been told not to enter the city.

Also taking part in the offensive are Kurdish troops, the Peshmerga, who've also agreed to stay out of Mosul to avoid inflaming ethnic tensions.

And then there are Christian militias and some Sunni tribesmen.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
An Iraqi soldier stands on ruins of the archaeological site of Nimrud

While this complex mix of vested interests is currently bonded by the common goal of destroying IS in Iraq, it could fracture once that goal is achieved.

For now though the focus remains on regaining the momentum of the offensive as elite troops try to push forward towards the centre of Mosul.

It is heavy going - the IS leadership has had two years to prepare for this battle.

Media caption,
Mosul battle: Inside camp for people fleeing IS fighting

And it's widely believed to have former Iraqi army and intelligence officers in its ranks, with the skills and knowledge to exploit the advantage of defending a city of narrow streets and with as many as a million people still living there.

So far they've been using a stream of suicide bombers along with well-trained snipers to pin down the Iraqi special forces pushing forward street by street.

The troops are taking a lot of casualties and there are reports they don't have the back-up they need from units of the regular army which have not yet moved inside the city.

It was never going to be easy to dislodge Islamic State from Mosul, but unless the militants suddenly collapse or cut and run, it looks like it is going to be a long, costly battle.

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