Pope Francis called on the international community on Thursday to protect the mostly Christian communities of northern Iraq fleeing a lightning advance by jihadist militants.

A statement delivered by his spokesman said the pope joined the urgent appeals for peace from bishops in the Middle East and called on the international community to “ensure the necessary help” reaches people fleeing fighters from the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

Tens of thousands flee jihadist push in north Iraq a Christian clerics, witnesses said.

The Jihadist militants took over Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, and surrounding areas when Kurdish troops withdrew overnight, fleeing residents and Christian clerics said on Thursday.

“I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP.

Several residents contacted by AFP confirmed that the entire area in northern Iraq, home to a large part of the country’s Christian community, had fallen to the Islamic State jihadist group