'Overwhelming need' in Iraq as winter approaches, thousands may freeze in makeshift tents

A refugee woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, sits with a child inside a tent at Nowruz refugee camp in Qamishli, northeastern Syria August 17, 2014.REUTERS/Rodi Said

Religious minorities in Iraq are in more danger than ever as winter approaches, a Catholic charity has warned.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis forced to live in makeshift tents after fleeing ISIS face freezing conditions as temperatures are expected to soon plunge below zero.

"There is an absolutely overwhelming need...people cannot be expected to survive in tents," John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) told Christian Today.

Pontifex, who returned from Iraq earlier this month, said:

"These people left their homes with nothing other than the shirts on their backs. They need warm clothes, housing, schools, and they need greater protections to ensure that they don't fall to the mercy of extreme militants."

Yesterday, at a special meeting of cardinals, Secretary of State for the Vatican Cardinal Pietro Parolin warned that a "new genocide" could well take place in northern Iraq and Syria, where ISIS are gaining control of towns and cities in a bid to create a caliphate.

Parolin said that greater humanitarian aid is needed, and protections put in place to allow Christians in particular to continue living in their homeland, rather than being forced to flee abroad.

There has been debate regarding the best way to help those affected by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

The Archbishop of Canterbury last month called on Western governments to "provide relief and safety for those displaced and in fear of their lives".

"What we are seeing in Iraq violates brutally people's right to freedom of religion and belief," he said.

"It is extremely important that aid efforts are supported and that those who have been displaced are able to find safety. I believe that, like France, the United Kingdom's doors should be open to refugees, as they have been throughout history."

Pontifex said it is vital to help people "wherever they are".

"We need to help them where they are, and as much as we can. We know it's a moving situation at every level, and as a result we have to respond to the situation as it evolves, be that helping those who wish to stay in Iraq, or those who have already made the decision to move."

"This does not just apply to Christians," he added.

"We would say the same for every other faith community who have been forced from their homes in such an appalling way that breaches every human rights imaginable...ACN is prioritising aid of both a humanitarian and pastoral nature."