Islamic State jihadists who took over large areas of northern Iraq overnight have forced thousands of Christians to flee and occupied churches, removing crosses and destroying manuscripts, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako has said.
“(The Christians) have fled with nothing but their clothes, some of them on foot, to reach the Kurdistan region,” Patriarch Sako told AFP.
“This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down,” said Sako. He added that up to 1,500 manuscripts were burnt.
The United Nations put the number of people who have fled as high as 200,000, and said that many thousands of people trapped by the militants on Sinjar mountain had been rescued in the past 24 hours.
“We’re just receiving the information right now. We’ve just heard that people over the last 24 hours have been extracted and the UN is mobilising resources to ensure that these people are assisted on arrival,” David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Reuters.
It is a “tragedy of immense proportions”, he said.
Pope Francis called on the international community to protect Iraq's Christian community.
A statement delivered by his spokesman said the Pope joined the urgent appeals for peace from bishops in the Middle East and called on the international community to "ensure the necessary help" reaches people fleeing fighters from the Islamic State.
The US denounced the jihadist offensive, warning the situation for civilians driven from their homes threatens to become a "humanitarian catastrophe".
"It is a situation that that we are looking at very closely," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, following reports that President Barack Obama was actively considering military intervention.
Islamic State militants overran Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, after pushing back Kurdish troops across a large area of the north of the country, fleeing residents and Christian clerics said.
Jihadists moved in overnight to claim several Christian towns, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee, having pushed back Kurdish peshmerga troops, who are stretched thin across several fronts in Iraq.
“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.
“It’s a catastrophe, a tragic situation. 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,” the archbishop said.
The Islamic State group posted a statement online later om Thursday, confirming that they had taken control of Mosul Dam - Iraq's largest dam - and vowed to continue "the march in all directions," adding that it will not "give up the great Caliphate project".
The group added that it has seized a total of 17 cities, towns and targets - including the dam - over the past five days. The statement could not be verified but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group.
The overnight advance came after the Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces in a weekend sweep in the north.
Several residents contacted by AFP confirmed that the entire area in northern Iraq, home to a large part of the country’s Christian community, had fallen to the Islamic State jihadist group.
Tal Kayf, the home of a significant Christian community as well as members of the Shabak Shiite minority, also emptied overnight.
“Tal Kayf is now in the hands of the Islamic State. They faced no resistance and rolled in just after midnight,” said Boutros Sargon, a resident who fled the town and was reached by phone in Arbil.
“I heard some gunshots last night and when I looked outside, I saw a military convoy from the Islamic State. They were shouting 'Allahu akbar’ (God is greatest),” he said.