Arbil: Hundreds of displaced Iraqi Christians on Tuesday danced and sang to celebrate an Iraqi military operation to retake their community's main hub of Qaraqosh from jihadists.
Iraqi Christian men, women and children -- some of them holding candles -- gathered at Mar Shimon church in the Kurdish capital of Arbil to pray and celebrate, an AFP correspondent reported.
Iraqi federal forces on Tuesday moved deep into Qaraqosh, a town that lies around 15 kilometres (10 miles) southeast of Mosul and was seized by the Islamic State jihadist group in August 2014.
"Today is a happy moment. There is no doubt our land will be liberated and we thank God, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary," said Hazem Djedjou Cardomi, a journalist among the crowd.
The evening gathering was organised in spite of what remained a fluid situation in Qaraqosh, with Iraqi forces taking position in several neighbourhoods but IS fighters potentially still holed up in others.
Qaraqosh had a population of around 50,000 people prior to an August 2014 offensive across the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul that forced almost every resident to flee.
The overwhelming majority of Qaraqosh residents were Christians, making it the largest Christian town in Iraq.
"We have been through a lot of suffering and today we are looking forward to returning to our region as soon as possible," Cardomi said.
Also present at the joyous gathering in Arbil, the nearby capital of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to which most displaced Christians fled two years ago, was George Djahola, a Syriac father.
"The people had this idea to celebrate when we heard this morning about the liberation... or at least the army's progress and entry into Qaraqosh, the first Christian town in the Nineveh Plain," he told AFP.
"Over the past two years, people were alive but their joy was not complete. They want to return to their homes, their land -- even if they have been destroyed -- and live in peace in their town," he said.
Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi federal forces on Monday launched a major offensive aimed at retaking Mosul, the second city and last major remaining IS stronghold in the country.
Waves of attacks by extremist insurgents over the years have depleted one of the oldest Christian communities in the world to a population of around 300,000, although estimates vary....