BEIRUT/KIRKUK, IRAQ – Thousands of Christians poured into Kurdistan as they fled a Saturday ultimatum by jihadists who overran northwestern Iraq last month and proclaimed a caliphate.
As militants attempted to break government defenses in strategic areas and edge closer to Baghdad, Christians joined hundreds of thousands of Shiite and other refugees into Kurdistan.
Their flight to the safety of the neighboring autonomous region coincided with the expected homecoming of Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, after 18 months of medical treatment in Germany.
The Islamic State militant group running Mosul had already demanded that those Christians still in the city convert, pay a special tax or leave but messages blaring on mosques’ loudspeakers appeared to spark an exodus.
An earlier statement by Mosul’s new rulers had said there would be “nothing for them but the sword” if Christians did not abide by those conditions before noon Saturday.
“Christian families are on their way to Dohuk and Arbil” in Kurdistan, said Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, who heads Iraq’s largest Christian community.
“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
Most Christians in northwestern Nineveh province fled in terror after jihadist-led militants enforcing an extreme version of Shariah — or Islamic law — launched an offensive June 9.
But many of the poorest families returned when the fighting stopped and the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, started administering the city. Sako put the number of Christians who were still in Mosul on Thursday at 25,000.
The Islamic State “seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Saturday.
Other minorities rooted in the same province of Nineveh have suffered even more than the Christians, according to crimes HRW documented against the Yazidis, as well as the Turkmen and Shabak Shiite communities.
The mass displacement was the latest in six weeks of turmoil that has forced more than 600,000 people from their homes, left thousands dead and brought Iraq to the brink of collapse.
Talabani’s return to his native Kurdistan on Saturday was likely to spark celebrations among supporters from his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.
He is widely celebrated as a skilled negotiator, who enjoys good relations with both the United States and Iran and has repeatedly mediated between Iraq’s fractious politicians in recent years.
Across the border in Syria, a monitoring group said Friday that Islamic State militants had killed 270 regime fighters, civilian security guards and employees since seizing a gas field in Homs province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described Thursday’s takeover of the Shaar field as “the biggest” anti-regime operation by the Islamic State since it emerged in the Syrian civil war last year.
The watchdog, updating an earlier toll of 115, said it had documented “the death of 270 people killed in the fighting or executed” since Thursday.
“A large majority of the men killed were executed at gunpoint after being taken prisoner following the takeover of the camp,” Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said.
“Eleven of the dead were civilian employees, while the rest were security guards and National Defense Forces members,” he added.
The Syrian government did not officially confirm the deaths, but supporters of President Bashar Assad’s regime posted photographs of the dead, and branded their killings as a “massacre.”