The seizure of Iraq’s largest Christian town has prompted a mass exodus of refugees, which a leading Catholic bishop described as a Way of the Cross that could become a genocide unless the global community intervenes.
“They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide. They need water, food, shelter,” Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Babylon said in an Aug. 7 open 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,” he said. “We hope it is not too late!”
His letter follows the fall of the city of Qaraqoush to forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – known as ISIS – on Wednesday night. The town was one of Iraq’s largest Christian towns until the Kurdish military forces known as the Peshmerga withdrew from it.
Qaraqoush is about 19 miles southeast of Mosul, which Islamic State forces captured in June.
Thousands of Christians and other minorities fled Mosul after a July 18 ultimatum demanding they convert, pay the jizya tax or be killed. They went to other towns in Nineveh province and in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Qaraqoush is referred to as the Christian capital of Iraq. Islamic State militants have taken down crosses and burned religious manuscripts, the BBC reports.
Patriarch Sako said about 100,000 Christians fled their villages and houses “horrified and panicked” with “nothing but the clothes on their backs,” the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need reports.
He said they are enduring “an exodus, a real via crucis (Way of the Cross).”
“Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat towards the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Duhok and Soulaymiyia, the sick, the elderly, infants and pregnant women among them,” the patriarch continued.
Patriarch Sako said Iraq’s central government is “incapable of enforcing law and order in this part of the country.” He also questioned whether Iraqi Kurdistan will be able to defend against “the fierce advance of the jihadists.”
He said there is a lack of cooperation between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish regional authority, stressing the need for international support and “a professional, well equipped army” to protect citizens from ISIS attacks.
Qaraqoush Christians and their churches had been receiving refugees from other parts of Iraq. The occupation by Islamic State forces has meant the end of salaries for government employees and the end of government-supplied ration cards, causing further hardship for the residents.
The Iraq-based Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena lamented the situation in an Aug. 4 letter.
“It really is a time of peril and we are hoping that a miracle from God will end all that,” they said.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., said that Pope Francis “urgently calls on the international community to protect all those affected 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.”
The Pope noted that their fate “depends entirely on the solidarity of others.”
Aid to the Church in Need has donated about $75,000 to help families displaced by the violence.