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.
When Mosul fell into the militant hands, the Islamic State gave members of the many ethnic and religious minorities an ultimatum to convert, pay an exorbitant tax or leave. Those who did not obey risked death.
The peshmerga units had initially managed to stall the militant advances, but their defense waned in recent weeks as the Islamic State group intensified efforts to expand its territory.
On Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi air force to provide aerial support to the peshmerga, in a rare show of cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government that underscored the serious nature of this crisis.
In Batella, one of the hamlets overrun overnight, Kurdish fighters and local Christian security guards went knocking on people's doors, urging them to leave, said Um Fadi, who only gave her knickname, fearing for her own safety.
A government employee who fled from Mosul with her family for refuge in Batella more than two weeks ago, Um Fadi said she was in despair. "Our situation is miserable," she told the AP by phone on Thursday. "We do not know what to do or where to go."
The head of the Kurdish regional government, Nechirvan Barzani, urged Iraqi Kurds "not to panic but to remain calm," stay where they are and continue their "normal work and life."
Last week, the Islamic State also seized the northwestern town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of people from the ancient Yazidi minority to flee into the mountains and the Kurdish region.
Meanwhile, the death toll from a series of bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday rose to 61, after several of those wounded died. A pair of car bombs first exploded in the densely populated Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, followed by another bomb in the nearby area of Ur and two more bombings in southeast Baghdad.
AP also is reporting that militants have seized the country's largest dam near the city of Mosul.
Also Thursday, the Iraqi parliament was to discuss candidates for the post of prime minister, a first step toward forming a new government. The discussion was postponed Tuesday after officials with al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, which won the most votes in elections in April, or the larger coalition it is part of should nominate a candidate.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has vowed to stand for a third four-year term as prime minister, but many of his critics have called for his removal, accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Iraq badly needs a government if the country is to unite and confront the threat posed by Islamic State.
Patriarch Sako lamented that the central government in Iraq is “incapable of enforcing law and order” in the region and that the area’s regional government, controlled by Kurds, is also having trouble facing “the fierce advance of the jihadists.”
“Clearly, there is lack of coopration between the central government and the Regional Autonomous Government,” he wrote. “This ‘vacuum’ is profited by the ISIS to impose their rule and terror. There is a need of international support and a professional, well-equipped army. The situation is going from bad to worse.”
Patriarch Sako concluded his letter: “We appeal with sadness and pain to the conscience of all and all people of good will and the United Nations and the European Union, to save these innocent persons from death. We hope it is not too late.”
As ISIS continued to make gains, more world leaders began to speak out. In Washington, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), chairman of the global human rights subcommittee in the House, called the ordeal Christians in Iraq are undergoing “genocide" and blamed President Obama for failing to lead.
“The evidence of genocide is overwhelming," Smith said. "The question is will we act before it’s too late? Will we act before every Christian in Iraq is exterminated or turned into a refugee? The President’s indifference is both numbing and enabling. We must act.”The Associated Press contributed to this report.