Members of the Iraq’s Christian minority celebrated Palm Sunday in the country’s main Christian town of Qaraqosh for the first time today since it was retaken from the Islamic State group.

Hundreds of faithful gathered in the town’s Tahira al-Kubra church for mass before starting the traditional Palm Sunday march, a procession during which palms are carried to commemorate Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem.

“Thank God, we are returning to our towns and churches after two years,” said Abu Naimat Anay, an Iraqi priest. Qaraqosh, with an overwhelmingly Christian population of around 50,000 before the jihadists took over the area in August 2014, was the largest Christian town in Iraq.

It was retaken by Iraqi forces late last year as part of a massive offensive to wrest back the nearby city of Mosul from IS but it remains almost completely deserted. The area is now considered safe and the Palm Sunday mass and march were secured by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an Assyrian militia.

The archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, moved back to the town last week but it needs to be extensively rebuilt and basic services restored before displaced Christians can return en masse.

“Honestly, this makes the heart happy and sad at the same time, because we were torn away from our birthplace and this kind of devastation we didn’t even see during the wars of the ’80s and ’90s,” Aby Naymat Anay said.

Many of the more 120,000 Christians believed to have fled their homes when IS swept across the region less than three years ago moved in with relatives or into camps in the nearby autonomous region of Kurdistan.

“There is a mixed feeling but sadness dominates. We fled to Arbil and we are not back yet,” 62-year-old Yusef Nisan Hadaya said, referring to the Iraqi Kurdish capital.

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