For the first time in years, bells rang out on the roof of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, which was feed from the Islamic State's grip last week after an intense fight.
On Sunday, the Archbishop of Mosul, Butrus Moshe, said mass, Reuters reported. Dozens of civilians attended.
“Today Qaraqosh is free of Daesh,” he said, using another term for ISIS. “Our role today is to remove all the remnants of [ISIS],” he said. “This includes erasing sedition, separation and conflicts, which victimized us.”
Hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis are monitoring the offensive to retake Mosul, the country's second-largest city. Each battlefield advance brings hope that they can return home, but they also fear what they might find when they get there.
Homes along the town's main road were charred and riddled with bullet holes. Many were spray-painted with graffiti, including the first letter of a derogatory word in Arabic for Christians that the militants used to mark Christian property. Under the extremists' rule, Christians had to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
Iraqi troops, after two years, have also entered the outskirts of Mosul. The advance could be the start of a grueling and slow operation for the troops, who will be forced to engage in difficult, house-to-house fighting in urban areas that is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Mosul is the final ISIS urban bastion in Iraq, the city from which it drove out a larger but demoralized Iraqi army in 2014 and declared a "caliphate" that stretched into Syria. Its loss would be a major defeat for the jihadis, but with the closest Iraqi troops still some 6 miles from the city center, much ground remains to be covered.
Violence is still rampant across the country, with killings worsening in October, the United Nations said. In a monthly report released by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, it said 1,792 people were killed in violence in Iraq in October, up from 1,003 the previous month. 1,120 of the dead were civilians.
Reuters reported that the country has seen a sharp decline in its Christian population, which started after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD.
“Political and sectarian strife, separating between one man and another, between ruler and follower, these mentalities must be changed,” Moshe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.