Vatican City/Baghdad, Aug 7 IANS | 4 months ago

Pope Francis Thursday expressed concern over the violence in northern Iraq, following the exodus of thousands of Christian families in the north of the country after their cities were taken by Sunni rebels of the Islamic State (IS).

The Vatican press office said the Pope had received with "concern" the "dramatic news coming from northern Iraq, where the most affected are Christian communities which must leave their villages because of the violence in the region".

In a statement, Francis urged the international community to put an end to this "humanitarian crisis and protect those threatened by violence".

Meanwhile, in Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to condemn the "terrorist threat in Iraq".

Thousands of Christians Thursday fled Qaraqosh in northern Iraq, the country's largest Christian city, and other towns after IS militants seized several predominantly Christian areas in the Nineveh governorate.

The IS rebels took the cities of al-Hamdaniya and Telkif, north of Mosul, after defeating the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who protected the area.

The Islamic extremists also captured Bertala, al-Kuir and Ba'shiqah, inhabited both by Muslims and Christians, near Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Thousands of families have abandoned their homes and fled to neighbouring Kurdistan in search for a safe haven, security sources said.

The IS took control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, last June, and since then it has advanced to other regions including Sinjar, making it closer to the last border crossing with Syria which it does not control.

The IS has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria to create an Islamic caliphate and has warned Christians they should convert to Islam or leave.

The rebel takeover of Sinjar three days ago led some 200,000 civilians to flee to the nearby mountains, mostly Kurds of the religious Yazidi community.

The refugees, who are trying to reach Kurdistan, urgently need water, food, shelter and medicines, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokesman David Swanson told the Efe news agency.

According to OCHA, since January 2014, the surge in violence between government forces and armed groups has made 1.2 million people flee their homes in central and northern Iraq.

Christians, Shia Turkomans, the Shabak and people of the Yazidi sect are minorities who have lived side by side in Iraq, where they now suffer persecution by the jihadi Islamic State.

(Posted on 07-08-2014)

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