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Iraqi Christians flee northern city of Mosul in wake of threats from Islamic State militants

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IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Christians who fled the northern city of Mosul under threat from Islamic extremists described on Tuesday leaving behind all their possessions, as signs emerged that the crackdown on the minority was causing tensions between the radicals and Sunni allies in the insurgency.

Most of Mosul's Christians fled when the Islamic State group and an array of other Sunni militants captured the city on June 10 — the opening move in the insurgents' blitz across northern and western Iraq. As a religious minority, Christians were wary of how they would be treated by hard-line Islamic militants.

The militants imposed a deadline last Saturday for Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. That was the final straw for many, including Zaid Qreqosh Ishaq, 27, who was forced to flee with his family.

"We had to go through an area where they had set up a checkpoint," he said. Islamic State group militants "asked us to get out of the car. We got out. They took... our things, our bags, our money, everything we had on us."

With nothing more than the clothes on their backs, Ishaq's family fled to the nearby self-rule Kurdish region or other areas protected by Kurdish security forces.

Like so many of the families that fled Mosul, Ishaq's took refuge at the St. Joseph Church in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. But they may be forced to move to nearby camps designated for fleeing the growing violence.

"I don't know what is going to happen to us," Ishaq said. "Our future is uncertain."

The U.N. said on Sunday that at least 400 families from Mosul — including other religious and ethnic minority groups — had sought refuge in the northern provinces of Irbil and Dohuk.

Mosul is home to some of the most ancient Christian communities, but the number of Christians has dwindled since 2003. On Sunday, militants seized the 1,800-year old Mar Behnam Monastery, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Mosul. The resident clergymen left to the nearby city of Qaraqoush, according to local residents.

PHOTO: In this Saturday, July 19, 2014 photo, the church of Mary is seen abandoned after Islamic militants closed it and brought the cross down from the rooftop in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday condemned the Islamic State extremist group's actions targeting Christians in territory it controls, saying they reveal the threat the jihadists pose to the minority community's "centuries-old heritage." (AP Photo)
In this Saturday, July 19, 2014 photo, the church of Mary is seen abandoned after Islamic militants closed it and brought the cross down from the rooftop in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday condemned the Islamic State extremist group's actions targeting Christians in territory it controls, saying they reveal the threat the jihadists pose to the minority community's "centuries-old heritage." (AP Photo)

Noel Ibrahim, who fled Mosul last week with his family, said gunmen from the Islamic State group stopped cars and stole cash and gold from women inside.

"One of the gunmen told us, 'You can leave now, but do not ever dream of returning to Mosul again,'" Ibrahim said.

Irbil's governor, Nawzad Hadi, has pledged to protect fleeing Christians and other minority groups. The territory is currently home to more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people from Iraq and Syria, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order — a collection of former members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath party said to be helping the Islamic State group in its conquests — disassociated itself from violence against Iraq's minority groups.

"Our army is an extension of the former national Iraqi army and includes all the factions of the Iraqi people such as Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen as well as Christians, Yazdis and Sabeans who want to liberate Iraq and relieve it from subordination," the group said in a message posted on its official website Tuesday. "We don't have any connection or coordination with any group ... which calls for dividing Iraq and its people on ethnic and sectarian basis."

The Islamic State group has vowed to continue its offensive on to Baghdad, although it appears to have crested for now after overrunning Iraq's predominantly Sunni areas. But the country's government has been unable to launch an effective counter-offensive against the militants and politicians are still struggling to form a government after April elections.

In Baghdad, newly appointed Speaker of Parliament Salim Al-Jabouri said Tuesday that the only way to tackle growing violence is a quick consensus among feuding political parties over the selection of a new government — a process which has stalled since April elections.

"Such acts should be confronted and this can be done through the establishing of democratic institutions that will start when the president of the republic is chosen and the Cabinet is formed," Al-Jabouri said.


Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Mehmet Guzel in Irbil and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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PHOTO: In this Sunday, July 20, 2014 photo, a newly-arrived displaced Christian boy stands next to his family's relief aid, provided by several agencies, at a church in the town of Hamadaniya, 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi Christians who fled the northern city of Mosul after Islamic extremists seized it described Tuesday, July 22, 2014 leaving behind all the possessions, as politicians in the country still struggle to form a government following recent elections. The militants have called on the Christians to convert to Islam and have tried to impose their own strict interpretation of Sharia law. (AP Photo)
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