By Loveday Morris and Kareem Fahim
The Church of Mart Shmoni, damaged by Islamic State fighters, in Bartella, Iraq. (Marko Drobnjakovic/Associated Press)
IRBIL, Iraq — At the evening service, the priest counseled forgiveness to a congregation with little reason to forgive. They were Christians from Mosul, brutalized by the Islamic State and betrayed, in some cases, by neighbors, and nothing — not the priest’s pleas, not his invocation of Cain and Abel — seemed likely to heal those scars.

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.”

When 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.

Iraqi 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.

An Islamic State flag painted on the wall of a church in the predominantly Christian village of Bartella. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Weapons belonging to resting members of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces at a house in Bartella. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

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.

It was 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 region.

Only the members of the Shabak minority, who were without any powerful patron or a region to call their own, seemed inclined to move back.

“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.

David Dosha, the priest of the Church of Mart Shmoni, located in the Christian Iraqi town of Bartella. (Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Burned Bible storybooks lay on the ground of a damaged church in Bartella. (Amel Pain/European Pressphoto Agency)

In 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 left.

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.

To 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.

The 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.”

Kareem Fahim reported from Shaqouli, Iraq. Mustafa Salim in Irbil and Aaso Ameen Shwan in Shaqouli also contributed to this report.