Armed jihadists of the so-called “Islamic State” took over Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, and nearby Christian settlements early Thursday, forcing thousands of Christians to flee to Kurdish-controlled areas. Statements of anguish and calls for intervention have been issued by Pope Francis and other Christian leaders.
U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized two operations to prevent genocide in Iraq. One operation is targeted airstrikes to protect US personnel and the other is a humanitarian effort to help the thousands of displaced Iraqi civilians, mostly religious minorities, who have been forced out of their homes by the Islamic State, or IS.
In addition to Christians, tens of thousands of ethnic Yazidis have fled to the mountains west of Mosul, where they are surrounded by the Sunni militants and exposed to temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) without access to water or other supplies. The United Nations’ children -relief agency, UNICEF, says at least 40 Yazidi children have died.
As many as a quarter of Iraq’s remaining Christians are reported to be on the run, according to the BBC. Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, told Agence France-Press the advancing Sunni militants have occupied churches, ripped down crosses and destroyed manuscripts.
The Islamic State, which previously called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, also has captured Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, after driving off the Peshmerga defense forces of Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq.?
Qaraqosh, a city of about 50,000 people in Iraq’s Nineveh Province, sits between Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, to the east. The Islamic State took over Mosul in July, and many of the city’s remaining Christians fled eastward to Qaraqosh, sometimes called the Christian capital of Iraq.
Kurdish Peshmerga troops had been pushed back from several points surrounding Mosul during an IS offensive during the weekend, including the town of Sinjar and Zumar, west of Mosul. The BBC reported that the Peshmerga commander in Qaraqosh informed the archbishop late Wednesday that the Kurdish forces would withdraw. There were reports of mortars being fired into Christian towns near the front lines east of Mosul, and Qaraqosh fell during the early hours of Thursday.
“I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP.
Following the capture of Sinjar and Zumar west of Mosul during the weekend, tens of thousands of residents fled into the hills between the two cities. Many are Yazidi, a Kurdish group with links to Zoroastrianism, and whose beliefs are regarded by some Sunni Muslims as satanic. They have been stuck without food or water.
“Many of the displaced are in immediate need of essential life-saving humanitarian items, including water, food, shelter and medicine,” said UN spokesman David Swanson.
Archbishop Thomas called the situation a “catastrophe.”
“Tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak, it cannot be described,” Thomas told AFP.
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP the jihadist advance has touched off a frantic dash for Kurdistan.
“There are 100,000 displaced Christians who have fled with nothing but their clothes, some of them on foot, to reach the Kurdistan region,” AFP quoted him as saying. “This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down.”
Pope Francis issued an “urgent appeal” to the international community Thursday, asking for a coordinated response “to ensure all necessary assistance – especially the most needed aid – to the great multitude of displaced persons whose fate depends entirely on the solidarity of others.”
In the United States, President Obama is considering airstrikes against IS forces and airdrops of humanitarian supplies to the refugees, the New York Times reported. CNN also reported that a defense department official said “other military options” are under consideration.
France on Thursday called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The World Council of Churches, as well as Iraq’s Chaldean prelates, Thomas and Sako, issued similar pleas.
“We call on the UN Security Council to immediately intervene. Tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak, it cannot be described,” Thomas said.?
Said Sako: “Today we appeal with lots of pain and sadness, to all people of good will, the UN Security Council, European Union and relief organizations, to help those people who are facing mortal danger.”
He added: “I hope it is not too late to avoid genocide.”
The sudden collapse of Qaraqosh is the latest of a series of jihadist blows to Iraq’s Christians. Since their offensive began in June, IS has ordered Christians in captured towns to either convert to Islam, pay a tax to remain Christian, leave, or die. In one instance, sources have told World Watch Monitor that IS militants beheaded a Christian on July 27 when he asked why he was being stopped in the street.
His wife, who was with him at the time of the attack, later told a priest and members of a church in Erbil what happened.
As the Christian couple fled Mosul, the sources said, they were stopped for questioning by militants, one of them armed. The woman’s husband repeatedly asked why IS kept detaining Christians. The one with the weapon became angry and hit the husband over the head. The injured man screamed in pain, further angering the militant, who then cut off his head and placed it on the man’s stomach.
The man’s wife, hysterical and in shock, was bundled into a car by the militants and the driver told to take her away.
A woman told World Watch Monitor that her 80-year-old husband, who had also confronted IS members, had his hands and legs cut.
A third incident was reported by a couple in their 50s who had fled Telkif, 15 miles north of Mosul, and arrived at the church in Erbil. During their escape the man had broken his leg. After visiting the hospital in Erbil he arrived at the church and told its members what had happened.
“We left Mosul on Wednesday (July 23) going to Telkif,” said the man. “We didn’t have anywhere to stay so we slept in the street, among the houses. When people saw us there they brought us some food to eat.”
The church members who heard this story told World Watch Monitor they were thankful the couple had made it to Erbil. “They were scared when they told their story, but they need others to listen otherwise they will remain traumatized,” a church member said.
The sources are not being identified by World Watch Monitor, in order to preserve their safety.
Sources also report an increase in threats. Before the recent Eid, the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan, members of IS sent messages to monasteries in the Nineveh Plain saying that “we will celebrate Eid” in your town.
IS has turned St Michael’s monastery into a barn to keep animals. The fourth century building is near the River Tigris.
A young family of five was attempting to flee Mosul when they were stripped of nearly all their possessions, including clothes for their children.
“They stole our car with everything I had brought for my children – their clothes, a washing machine, food, medicine, jewellery for the girls,” the mother said. “I hid my wedding ring in the diaper of my 10-month-old baby, but they took my new phone.
“My 80-year-old father in law got angry and demanded they return our things but they said to him: ‘Do not speak or we are going to hurt you.’
“As they were taking our car, I managed to grab two bags of the girls’ clothes and then we ran away.”
The family has relocated to Erbil and the mother, a chemist, will try to find work there. They will try to rent a house and place the children in schools, but she is questioning whether even Erbil is safe.
“Do you think IS will enter Erbil?” she asked. “Is it safe here because people from Mosul are still afraid?”
Prices are rising in Mosul. In July, blocks of ice were selling at 10,000 Iraqi Dinars (US $8.50 or UK �5), and petrol was selling for 2,500 dinars per liter. Supplies could become more restricted if routes through Kurdistan are cut off. Electricity is limited to two hours per day; water is not available across the city; and medicines are becoming scarce.
In July, Iraq’s interior ministry arrested real-estate agents in Baghdad in connection with a scheme in which letters containing the message “Leave, you crusaders” — and a bullet — were sent to Christian homeowners in hopes of persuading a quick, and cheap, sale.
Also in July, Christians who had fled Mosul marched in protest, in near-50-degree (Celsius) temperatures, from their refugee camp in Ankawa to the UN base in Erbil.
Sahar Mansour, a Chaldean Catholic who fled Mosul in June, told the Catholic News Service that she had heard horrific accounts of violent forced conversions of Christians who were unable to flee Mosul because of ill health or disability.
“I did not imagine that one day I would live like this, without human rights, drinking salty water out of wells, without electricity and a house, in this heat,” the news service quoted her as saying.
Mansour and her family are among 3,500 Christian families encamped around Ankawa, on the outskirts of Erbil.