Displaced Iraqis receive food from an Iraqi charity organization, inside the Khazer refugee camp on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Thousands of Christians have fled the city of Qaraqosh. UPI/Ceerwan Aziz | License Photo
QARAQOSH, Iraq, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- After the city of Qaraqosh, Iraq, fell to Islamic State forces, up to a quarter of the country's remaining Christians were reported to now be refugees.
Qaraqosh, a city regarded as Iraq's Christian capital in Nineveh province, was captured Wednesday after Kurdish forces withdrew. Much of the Chaldean Christian population is now headed for the autonomous Kurdish region of the country. As many as 100,000 refugees are believed to be fleeing Sunni Muslim militants who now control much of Iraq and regard themselves as the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
Kurdish forces have fought the IS advance in Nineveh for weeks, but advised the Qaraqosh archbishop late Wednesday they could no longer hold back the militants. Witnesses said the IS forces could be seen in Qaraqosh removing crosses from churches and burning religious manuscripts.
"It's a catastrophe, a tragic situation: tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak," said Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of the northern city of Kirkuk.
Qaraqosh is 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) southeast of Mosul, which was captured by the IS in June. Iraq's Christian population, the majority of whom are of the Chaldean sect, has fallen from about 1.5 million in 2003 to between 350,000 and 450,000 today.
Another religious group in Nineveh, the Yazidis, was rescued after being trapped on a mountain by IS forces. The United Nations reported 50,000 members of the secretive minority group were removed from Mount Sinjar and rescued, without providing details.