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Iraqi Christians celebrate a bittersweet Christmas amid destruction and liberation

Christians in Bartella, Iraq, are celebrating their first Christmas since 2013 following their town's liberation from Islamic State militants as part of the campaign to retake Mosul. Historically called home by thousands of Christians, much of Bartella's population fled to comparative safety in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil, while its Mar Shimoni church was defaced by occupying ISIS fighters, who tore down crosses and damaged statues of saints.

"It is a mix of sadness and happiness," Bishop Mussa Shemani said of celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in the damaged building. "We are sad to see what has been done to our holiest places by our own countrymen, but at the same time we are happy to celebrate the first Mass after two years."

Many former residents of other historically Christian areas nearby remain unable to go home because of the level of destruction in their towns. For now, they are stuck in refugee camps and overcrowded apartments, relying on humanitarian aid to survive. "We miss praying in our churches, sitting outside our homes in the summer evenings, tending our gardens," said Rev. Khouri Youssef, an elderly Catholic Chaldean priest who organized his town's evacuation in 2014 as ISIS forces approached. "We bear the wound in our hearts, but life goes on."