Khalid Ramzi, a congregant, seemed to choke on
the sermon. “We can’t fall into the same hole twice. We don’t want our
children to be raised in violence and fear,” he said, standing outside
the church in Irbil. “Only in our dreams can we go back to Mosul.”
the militants swept into the city two years ago, Christians were
ordered to convert, pay a tax or die. As the Islamic State pushed beyond
the city, onto the plains of Nineveh, its advance scattered the rich
patchwork of religious and ethnic minorities — Yazidis and Assyrians,
Kurds and Shabaks — that made the area a microcosm of diverse Iraq and a
place unlike perhaps any in the world.
Churches were torched. Yazidis were massacred or enslaved. Villages emptied as hundreds of thousands of people fled.
forces advancing toward Mosul have recaptured some of the villages,
raising the possibility of return for the minorities. But it is
difficult to imagine the villages whole again, with their emptied
streets and houses lying in ruin or despoiled by the militants.
A new order in Mosul and the surrounding region already has begun to
take shape, before troops even have entered the city. With competing
visions, powerful players including Turkey, Iran, the Kurds and the
U.S.-backed Iraqi government are jostling for influence. The battle will
forge its own reality, with the violence possibly sending hundreds of
thousands of people searching for shelter away from their homes.
And the future of the region will be defined, in many ways, by who decides to return.
In Shaqouli, an ethnically mixed village about 12 miles east of Mosul, a
few villagers drove back two weeks ago, with one, Asem Hussein, making a
forceful case that his neighbors will eventually follow. Some sort of
munition had caved in his living room, leaving a tangle of concrete and
rebar, and all he had been able to recover was a few blankets and an air
conditioner that somehow had survived.
“I am going to rebuild it and stay, and we will rebuild all ruined Iraqi
villages,” he insisted. Shaqouli, he added, “will remain as mixed as it
used to be — a mini-Iraq.”
But the mayor, Mamel Qassim, who is Kurdish, had written off the
place as lost. It was partly personal: During the Islamic State
occupation, the militants had used his house as their headquarters. As a
result, it had been crushed by an airstrike, the debris littered with
copies of a weekly paper that the militants distributed.
more than that, though. The Iraqi government — part of the sectarian
political order that took hold after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — was
as weak as it ever had been, Qassim reckoned, and ill-equipped to
protect minorities. Sunni Arabs from the village had fled or been forced
to retreat toward Mosul along with the Islamic State, and the Kurds,
like the mayor, had mostly moved to Irbil, in the semiautonomous Kurdish
Only the members of the Shabak minority, who were without any
powerful patron or a region to call their own, seemed inclined to move
“It will never be good here,” said Qassim, adding that he intended to resign as mayor. “It will only get worse.”
Iraq’s news media has been awash with photos and videos in recent
days showing soldiers recapturing churches desecrated by the militants —
with the implicit message that it will soon be safe for Christians to
return. In some of the Christian villages around Mosul, residents said
they did intend to move back, but they portrayed the move as more a
responsibility than a choice.
“We want to bring back the beauty
of this area,” said Benham Shamani, a writer from Bartella, a
majority-Christian town east of Mosul, invoking more than a thousand
years of Christian heritage in the area.
“Only the original people of the area can return this beauty. Only the people of this area can rebuild it,” Shamani said.
reality, though, Christians have been leaving Iraq for years, an exodus
that began in earnest after the U.S.-led invasion. At the time, the
country had around 1.5 million Christians; by the time of the Islamic
State’s takeover of Mosul, they were believed to be fewer than 500,000.
Now community leaders say at least a third of those who remained have
In 2014, France said it would grant asylum
to Christians forced to flee Mosul. Some community leaders criticized
the move, saying it would devastate what remains of Iraq’s Christians.
But even the community’s leaders concede it will be difficult to go back to Mosul.
return to the city would be to “remember all the pain, all the threats,
all the killing, all the letters with bullets inside. We’ll remember
the looks on the street,” said another priest at the Irbil church, the
Rev. Zakareya Ewas, as families milled about after the service.
problems for Christians started before the Islamic State takeover, as
the group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda, extended its grip in the city. Ewas
said he received threatening phone calls and attempts at extortion. He
stopped wearing his black robes and collar on the street. His wife
covered her hair in an effort to blend in. Priests were murdered as
Christians were targeted for their religion but also their perceived
wealth, with many kidnapped for ransom.
Ewas, a Syriac Orthodox
priest, fled Mosul as the militants took over in 2014. The cross in his
old church has been pulled down, he said, and the building now is used
as a shelter for the militants’ livestock.
His brother moved to
Jordan two weeks ago after struggling to find work in Irbil — and after
hearing several months ago that his yogurt factory in the city had been
wiped out in a coalition airstrike.
“Now there’s nothing for him to go back to,” Ewas said, adding that there were many others like his brother.
If the Christians of Mosul did return, he said, “it will be just to sell their houses and leave.”
Fahim reported from Shaqouli, Iraq. Mustafa Salim in Irbil and Aaso
Ameen Shwan in Shaqouli also contributed to this report.