A child holds a bowl of soup inside the Khazer camp on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq, June 29.


A child holds a bowl of soup inside the Khazer camp on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq, June 29.

July 7, 2014

Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled shelling by extremist militants and were seeking refuge in the neighbouring autonomous Kurdistan region, said Catholic leaders in northern Iraq, who expressed grave concern for the people's fate.

"It's going from bad to worse," Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matte Warda of Irbil told Catholic News Service by telephone June 28.

"Over 40,000 Christians have left the villages of Qaraqosh and Karamlish over the past three days. They are really, really afraid."

The archbishop said most of those who fled left with just the clothes on their backs, while some, who were still in their pajamas – a sign of their panic and desperation – narrowly escaped after militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant laid siege to Christian villages outside of Mosul.

As violence continued to plague Syria and Iraq, Pope Francis pleaded for international action to promote dialogue, and he urged Catholics to pray particularly for Iraqi Christians forced to flee in late June.

"The news coming from Iraq is very painful, unfortunately," the pope said June 29 after reciting the Angelus with visitors in St. Peter's Square.

"I join the bishops of the country appealing to government leaders that, through dialogue, national unity could be preserved and war avoided."

Iraq was thrown back into crisis in mid-June after thousands of armed members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant moved from Syria through much of northern Iraq, killing both Muslims and Christians.

On June 29 they proclaimed a "caliphate," an Islamic state led by a religious leader, across the territories they had captured.

Meanwhile, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad pleaded June 30 with Catholics outside Iraq to be careful accepting stories claiming the violence is being perpetrated "against Christians in a selective manner.

"I repeat that up until now, there have been no attacks aimed at those who bear the name of Christ. The Christians are sharing the anguish and suffering with their Muslim brothers and sisters."

Earlier, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul told Fides that more than 90 per cent of the 40,000 residents of Qaraqosh had fled. The majority of the town's inhabitants are Syriac Catholics.


A lack of action on the part of the international community, he said June 28, is "complicit with the crimes" being committed against innocent civilians caught in the path of the militants.

Warda told CNS that about 15,000 of the displaced people were taking shelter in 14 schools in the Kurdistan region, where temperatures were 42C. Others were sleeping in the streets due to the extreme heat.

Christians have fled Iraq in massive numbers since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its aftermath.