ISIS, the radical Islamist group that forced Christians out of Mosul with the threat of death, has taken control of most of the villages of the Nineveh Plain, the northern area where Iraqi Christians have hunkered down in what is appearing increasingly to look like ethnic cleansing.
In a statement in which the Vatican referst to "terrible developments," Pope Francis has called for help from the "international community."
"His Holiness urgently calls on the international community to protect all those affected or threatened by the violence, and to guarantee all necessary assistance—especially the most urgently needed aid—to the great multitude of people who have been driven from their homes, whose fate depends entirely on the solidarity of others," today’s statment read."
The overnight development was reported in an urgent letter from Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
“The ISIS militants attacked with mortars most of the villags of the plain of Nineveh, during the night of 6th-7th of August and now they are controlling the area,” Patriarch Sako said, writing from Baghdad today in a letter emailed to Aleteia partner Aid to the Church in Need.
The Associated Press, quoting "several priests in northern Iraq," reported that militants from the Islamic State group overran a cluster of predominantly Christian villages alongside the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, sending tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing from the area.
The capture of Qaraqoush, Iraq’s biggest Christian village, and at least four other nearby hamlets, brings the Islamic State to the very edge of the Iraqi Kurdish territory and its regional capital, Irbil.
Irbil is one of the towns to which the Christian population of Northern Iraq, which stands at approximately 100,000, is fleeing, along with Duhok and Soulaymiyia, Patriarch Sako said. The veritable exodus, taking place under soaring temperatures, includes sick, elderly, infants and pregnant women, he said.
“They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide,” the Patriarch wrote. “They need water, food, shelter…”
Patriarch Sako said that churches and affiliated properties in the Christian villages are being occupied, and some are being destroyed and desecrated. The destruction includes the burning of old manuscripts and documents, he added.
The Islamic State has already seized large chunks of northern and western Iraq in a blitz offensive in June, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. The onslaught has pushed Iraq into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The al-Qaida-breakaway group since has imposed a self-styled caliphate in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, imposing its own harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Iraqi government forces and allied Sunni tribal militiamen have been struggling to dislodge the Islamic State militants with little apparent progress.
Bishop Joseph Tomas, who is based in the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, said the Islamic State pushed into Qaraqoush and four surrounding hamlets—Tilkaif, Bartella, Karamless and Alqosh—on Wednesday and was in control of them on Thursday.
Kurdish peshmerga units, which had protected the area, fled along with civilians, Bishop Tomas said. Other priests contacted by AP confirmed the information.
The raid started late Wednesday, and by 10pm, most Kurdish fighters had pulled out, said Father Gabriel, a resident of Alqosh.
The Christians and members of other minority groups ran for their lives, with tens of thousands heading to Kurdish northern Iraq, he added.
"All Christian villages are now empty," said Bishop Tomas.