After overtaking Christian towns across Iraq, ISIS beheaded church statues and used ancient religious structures as shooting ranges, according to a disturbing new report.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, a Christian woman shared the destruction she encountered upon returning to her hometown of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in the Nineveh Plains, following its liberation from ISIS.
Manal Matti, who used to run a beauty salon near the now fire-damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception, told the outlet the jihadists had taken mannequins from her shop and used them for target practice and beheaded ancient Christian statues.
"The jihadists used the church as a shooting range and the mannequins as targets. The mannequins are completely riddled [with bullets]," she said. "I do not know when I will ever be able to see the inhabitants of Qaraqosh coming again to my beauty salon."
One Christian named Mariam who returned to the church for the first time in two years expressed horror at the graffiti covering the walls: "It says that if they die destroying this church and this city, they will go straight to heaven," she told ABC News.
Another historic church in Qaraqosh, St George's Syriac Catholic Church, was also used by ISIS as an improvised bomb factory and contained hundreds of bombs and grenades, according to the outlet. Chemicals were found in the church, together with instructions on how to mix them into explosives.
Another Christian, Louis Petrus returned to the town only to find his house damaged and most of his furniture burned or stolen, but, he said: "This is my country. As soon as it is safe in the city and we have permission to live here again, I want to rebuild my life in Qaraqosh."
Father Sharbil Eeso, a 72-year-old Catholic priest from Qaraqosh, said he is hopeful the town will someday be restored to its former glory: "Despite all the damage, I have hope for the future. If our security is guaranteed, Christians can continue to live in Iraq," he said. "I want to return to Qaraqosh when there is electricity and water again, although I think that safety is the main condition for returning."
Before Qaraqosh was taken by Islamic State forces in 2014, Christians made up about 95% of its population, according to World Watch Monitor. The town was liberated in October on the first day of Mosul Liberation Operation in 2016. During their occupation of the town, ISIS militants looted hundreds of Christian homes, desecrated churches, vandalized monasteries and churches, smashed statues and replaced the cross with their black flag of terror
The Gospel Herald reported in November that for the first time in two years, Iraqi Christians were able to celebrate mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
At the time, Father Ammar reinstated the cross on his church, helped by Christian soldiers guarding the village.
"After being away for exactly 811 days, after being attacked by the forces of darkness and evil, we have come back to worship in freedom," he said, and shared he was able to locate 40 ancient documents from his church's history, untouched by IS.
"I brought those back to our people...For us those documents are our link with our history and are therefore very important," he said.
Iraq is ranked the 7th most dangerous place to be a Christian in the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List.