Christians have been forced to return to the internally displaced people camps they used after Islamic State took over the Nineveh Plains (World Watch Monitor)

Fighting has erupted between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in a predominantly Christian town in northern Iraq, causing residents to flee.

Around 900 families have fled Telskuf and its surrounding villages – part of the Nineveh Plains region of northern Iraq liberated last year from the Islamic State group – to seek refuge in Alqosh and Dohuk, further north.

Two teenage boys have been injured in the fighting – 12 and 14 years old respectively. Some ‘caravans’ (portacabins used to shelter internally displaced people during IS’s onslaught) are now in use again to host those who fled.

“This is a huge drawback and disappointment for the whole Christian community,” said a spokesperson for Open Doors, a charity that supports Christians under pressure for their faith. “During the time of displacement, Open Doors had supported a refugee camp through a local partner. Over the past months the camp had emptied down to only two families still living there… until yesterday.

“Now all the 40 caravans are filled again with families from those three villages that were hit. That two children of only 12 and 14 got wounded by this eruption of violence is making an especially deep impression on the Christians. We pray they will be okay.”

Christian families like this one only returned home to Telskuf in February (World Watch Monitor)

A local priest, Father Salar Kajo, refused to leave the town and called for aid.

A source told World Watch Monitor by email last night: “Iraqis intend to begin bombardment of Telskuf in the morning using heavy weapons. They sent word to Fr Salar that everyone needed to leave the town tonight. He has sent away all the families, but he has refused to leave. Several of his young workers are staying with him.”

Iraqi government forces continue to jostle with Kurdish forces for control of the region, which the Kurds helped to liberate from IS last year.

Christians have been on high alert since the recent Kurdish referendum, when Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, scared at the prospect of another wave of violence.

“This is a huge drawback and disappointment for the whole Christian community. Over the past months the camp had emptied down to only two families still living there. Now all the 40 caravans are filled again.”

“We have the Kurds claiming territory that is not theirs, and the Iraqis claiming territory that is not theirs, and the Christians, whose land it rightfully is, being used as acceptable collateral damage once again,” the source added.

“It has been a very busy and terrifying 24 hours,” another source told World Watch Monitor by email. “It seems to have stopped now, but the damage has been done.”

The Open Doors spokesperson added that the latest fighting was “all the more disappointing because the Kurds have said they will freeze the results of the referendum and start dialogue to prevent it ending up in a war”.

Father Poulos, a priest from the town of Bashiqa, south of Telskuf, told World Watch Monitor last week he had been expecting a government response since the referendum.

The priest said the Peshmerga had told him they would withdraw from the town and, shortly after their departure, the Iraqi army arrived and took control.

He said he had a sleepless night and that people were afraid. “My phone kept ringing. Many people called me asking about the situation. I tried to comfort them telling them they shouldn’t worry,” he said.

Since IS’s defeat, small numbers of Iraqi Christians have started to return to the towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains region. Father Poulos and around 200 Christian families were among them, returning home to Bashiqa a few months ago.

As World Watch Monitor reported on 17 October, experts had warned that fresh large-scale fighting in the disputed territory could further drain the region of Christians.