Baghdad/Vatican City :  Thousands of Christian families on Thursday fled their homes in northern Iraq after militants of the Islamic State (IS) Sunni insurgent group seized several predominantly Christian areas in Nineveh governorate even as Pope Francis expressed concern over the situation in northern Iraq.

President Barack Obama, taken aback by the development, is considering ordering US airstrikes against Sunni extremists in northern Iraq and humanitarian food drops to beleaguered civilians, reports said.

The Islamic extremists also captured cities inhabited both by Muslims and Christians, near Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Thousands of families abandoned their homes and fled to neighbouring Kurdistan in search of a safe haven, the sources said.

The IS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last June and since then it has advanced to other regions, including Sinjar, making it closer to the last border crossing with Syria which it does not control.

The IS has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria to create an Islamic caliphate and has warned Christians they should convert to Islam or leave. The rebel takeover of Sinjar three days ago led some 200,000 civilians to flee to the nearby mountains, mostly Kurds of the religious Yazidi community.

The refugees, who are trying to reach Kurdistan, urgently need water, food, shelter and medicines.

Since January 2014 the surge in violence between government forces and armed groups has displaced 1.2 million people in central and northern Iraq.

The Vatican press office said the Pope had received with “concern” the “dramatic news coming from northern Iraq.  In a statement, Francis urged the international community to put an end to this “humanitarian crisis and protect those threatened by violence”.

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