Mosul -- Six years after the Islamic State (IS) group took Mosul, "the archbishop's visit to the city is a way to bear witness to the presence of Christians" and show that "they did not abandon the city and intend to contribute to its rebirth," said Fr Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karemlash, Nineveh Plain.
The Chaldean clergyman spoke to AsiaNews about the visit by Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa in Iraq's northern metropolis, together with Muslim religious leaders and local tribal dignitaries.
"By rebuilding churches [and mosques] and resuming business activities, we are sending a strong message to all the Christians who left that they can return and be present."
The prelate's visit to the right side of the city, home to the most important historic buildings and places of worship, took place last Saturday to coincide with the anniversary of its fall to IS Jihadi forces in 2014.
The Islamic State, which ruled through violence and terror, was routed in the summer of 2017 after devastating some of the city's most iconic places of worship, like the al-Nouri Mosque and the Al-Saea (Our Lady of the Hour) Church.
The two places of worship, one Muslim and one Christian, today symbolise Mosul's rebirth thanks to a reconstruction project financed by UNESCO and the United Arab Emirates, part of a programme called 'Reviving the spirit of Mosul by rebuilding its historical monuments'.
"For months we heard stories about rebuilding the mosque, the minaret and the Dominican church with the clock tower. Funds have been allocated and many are pushing to rebuild these important places, symbol of the old city wounded" by jihadists.
For many years, the Chaldean priest has been caring for thousands of families who fled in the summer of 2014 following the rise of the Islamic State group. He can report that "we are just at the beginning".
The governor, he adds, "is fighting to rebuild the city, an all-out battle against corruption which is a serious problem. Infrastructures must be rebuilt, starting from the hospitals and services that are still inadequate."
This is essential for a country that is currently struggling, like much of the world, to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"Mosul is under curfew but people can move within the city, and Nineveh province has been spared from the virus," said Fr Paul. "We managed to limit the spread of the virus by closing the borders with other provinces and Kurdistan, and by imposing quarantine measures for those arriving from outside."
The presence of the archbishop "is a source of encouragement" for Christians and for the whole city, and represents a message that "invites us to go forward, to rebuild people first as the foundation of the new Mosul and then brick and mortar."
From this perspective, it is crucial "to further coexistence between different religions. Christians must return but the situation is still not right for their return."
Security, development, guarantees of stability and trust are needed because Christians "feel betrayed by [some] Muslims who collaborated with the Islamic State in expulsions and violence."
Even today there is an "open wound at a psychological level" that needs to be "healed". Giving the city a new, modern face has become crucial "to counter extremism." For Fr Paul, "We are still at the beginning but this goal is needed to achieve real change."