Father Charbel Issu stands before a shattered altar, spreads out his hands and begins leading a group of Kalashnikov-wielding militia fighters in prayer.
On the wall in front of them, graffiti scrawled in black spray paint.
Iraqi fighters battling to oust Daesh from Mosul captured the Mar Benham monastery on Sunday, allowing its priests to return.
Dating back to the fourth century AD, the Syriac monastery lies just 30 kilometres south of Iraq’s second city which became a bastion of the militant group which swept across northern Iraq in 2014.
When they seized it in 2014, the militants sacked the monastery, smashing carvings off the wall, decapitating a statue and leaving the building as an empty shell.
The priests fled and most have not returned.
“I am both happy and sad,” Issu, a former director of the monastery, told AFP on his first visit back.
“I’m happy to return to these holy places, to see this monastery where I spent a year and a half as superior.
“At the same time, I’m sad to see it like this, in such bad condition, demolished. It hurts my heart,” he said.
In front of the main building, he peered down on the rubble covering the tombs of Mar Benham – a Syriac saint from whom the monastery gets its name – and his sister Sara.
In 2015, Daesh terrorist posted a video of themselves blowing up the tomb. Today, little remains.
It was part of Daesh’s campaign of destruction as it swept across the region.
The militants trashed other faiths’ places of worship and blew up ancient sites such as the Assyrian city of Nimrud and the Greco-Roman remains of Palmyra in neighbouring Syria.
Now, rebuilding the community will be tough, Issu said.
“You should see their houses,” he said. “Fifty percent of their houses have been torched.”
The attacks are the latest in a string of abuses against Iraq’s community in recent years. Issu said reining in tensions between religions is a daunting task.
“It will be very difficult,” he said. “But we hope and hope.”
As he toured the monastery, the small, grey-haired priest was escorted by heavily armed fighters from a militia, who wore crosses and bullet belts over their camouflage.
They are part of the Babylon Brigade, a militia formed by devotees across Iraq to battle Daesh after it swept through the country.
They were part of the contingent that took back the area around the monastery.
The Brigade fights under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation forces, an umbrella for 40 militias formed in a bid to counter the terrorists.
They helped in the operation to wrest the monastery from the terrorists. They say they want to go on fighting until they have pushed Daesh out of all the religious sites it holds in Iraq – and even in Syria.
“We are very sad to see all the destruction here but the happiness of the victory has overwhelmed us and we are so joyful to be standing here,” said Colonel Dhafer Luis.
“I hope that the devotees return to this area and I call on them to return,” he said.
“We have shown by our example that even though we are a small group we captured this place – what you need is a faithful heart.”
Extracted from khaleejtimes