By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
Displaced Christian child, sleeping. Via Barnabas Fund
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)-- Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians faced an unprecedented crisis Saturday, August 9, after fleeing Islamic militants who overran towns and villages in northern Iraq, while U.S. warplanes carried out air strikes in an attempt to halt the violent Islamists.
Fighters of the feared Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran one of Iraq's biggest Christian towns Qaraqosh, as well as the Christian towns Tilkaif and Al Kwair in Nineveh Province, witnesses said.
ISIL militants have published video footage of executions, while fighters were also seen pulling down church crosses and burning manuscripts, as part of their self declared campaign to establish a strict Islamic state in areas of Iraq and Syria.
"At least 200,000 Christians are now thought to be fleeing towards the Iraqi Kurdistan region," said aid group Barnabas Fund, which supports Christians in heavily Islamic nations. "Some of the displaced had already fled to the Nineveh plain from Mosul" which was taken by ISIL on June 10, Barnabas Fund told BosNewsLife.
Several towns have reportedly been emptied of their Christian populations.
Other religious minorities in Iraq are also suffering, including as many as 40,000 members of the Yezidi minority stranded on Mount Sinjar, where many have died, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to order air strikes.
"In recent days Yezidi men, women and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands," he told reporters. They "are now hiding on a mountain with little but the clothes on their backs, and without food, without water. People are starving, children are dying of thirst,"the president said.
"Meanwhile ISIL forces below have called for a systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide....I have said before that the United States cannot and should [not] intervene every time there is a crisis in the world...[But] when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States cannot turn a blind eye," Obama said, adding that the Iraqi government had asked for American assistance.
"We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent an act of genocide", the president added ahead of Saturday's second day of air strikes.
Christian and Yezidi minorities have watched how their religious sites were attacked.
"By Thursday morning, August 7, all towns and villages in the Nineveh [Province] were under [ISIL] control," said Barnabas Fund, which supports Christians in heavily Islamic nations.
It said fighters were seen raising the black flag of jihad over a church in the area.
"The catastrophe facing the Christians of northern Iraq right now is a tragedy of unbelievable proportions," said Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund. He told BosNewsLife that his group is sending assistance "through trusted partners on the ground, who are directly involved with
the displaced Christians and able to help immediately."
With fighting continuing, Pope Francis asked on his Twitter website all "Catholic parishes and communities to offer a special prayer this weekend for Iraqi Christians."
Besides prayers, local Church leaders said it was crucial that Christians are protected by authorities. "The destruction of these Christian communities is a loss not just for Christians but for all in the region," warned Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, supreme head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church, in published remarks.