A line of buses is pulling up in Ankawa, the Christian neighborhood of Erbil.
Today is going to be a special day during this weekend of Easter. The atmosphere is filled with excitement and young men and older women share the same anticipation.
For the first time in three years, they will celebrate Easter in their hometown. The goal of the convoy is Bartella. A small village about 12 kilometers from Mosul.
When ISIS fighters had to flee the villages and cities during the liberation operation toward Mosul, they did a thorough job of leaving towns inhabitable. Much of Bartella is destroyed. That also goes for the church: parts are burned, crosses and statues are smashed and a big gaping hole in one of the walls shows where a cross used to hang.
But that does not keep Christians from celebrating Easter in their own church. Father Yacoub, a Syriac Orthodox priest, organized most of this and through local partners in Iraq, we helped cover some of the costs for food and transportation. Around 15 buses and over a 300 people travel with him. Two hours and many military checkpoints later, the Christians can walk up to the church.
The town is well protected. Guards are on the rooftops around the church. The military is everywhere checking people going in and out of the village and those who are inside the church or in the vicinity.
While the bells in the clock tower ring over the village and beyond, Father Yacoub shares: “This means a lot to me, after all these years we now are celebrating Easter here. That is very hopeful.”
When speaking about the resurrection of Jesus and the hope it may give he replies: “Jesus can come into our hearts and that will comfort us, but coming to their homes is not possible for the people, so that is difficult for many. Of course, the message during the celebration this morning will be about hope, also for people to return.”
While guards stand outside, inside the church, there is a celebration.
Some Christians look serious while others smile with a glimmer on their faces. There is singing, praying, reading from the Word of God and the breaking of the Bread.
The worshippers have faith, and many share the hope that the restored Body of Christ will also come true one day for their village, a restored community.