Christians were fleeing Iraq's jihadist-held city of Mosul en masse Friday after mosques relayed an ultimatum giving them a few hours to leave, the country's Chaldean patriarch and witnesses said.
"Christian families are on their way to Dohuk and Arbil," in the neighbouring autonomous region of Kurdistan, Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP. "For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians."
Witnesses said messages telling Christians to leave the city by Saturday were blared through loudspeakers from the city's mosques Friday.
A statement dated from last week and purportedly issued by the Islamic State jihadist group that took over the city and large swathes of Iraq during a sweeping offensive last month warned Mosul's Christians they should convert, pay a special tax, leave or face death.
"We were shocked by the distribution of a statement by the Islamic State calling on Christians to convert to Islam, or to pay unspecified tribute, or to leave their city and their homes taking only their clothes and no luggage, and that their homes would then belong to the Islamic State," Sako said.
The patriarch, who is one of the most senior Christian clerics in Iraq, and residents contacted by AFP said Islamic State militants had in recent days been tagging Christian houses with the letter N for "Nassarah", the term by which the Koran refers to Christians.
The statement, which was seen by AFP, said "there will be nothing for them but the sword" if Christians reject those conditions.