Eleven Iraqi Christians – from one family – arrived at Paris’s main Charles de Gaulle airport in the morning, freeing them from an ultimatum to either covert to Islam, pay a religious levy or even face death from fighters with the Islamic State (IS) – formerly ISIS – who has seized large swaths of northern Iraq.
Their arrival to France comes as thousands of Christians are reported to be fleeing Qaraqhosh –known as Iraq’s Christian capital – in Nineveh province after militants captured it overnight and started to dismantle crosses and burn religious manuscripts.
The seizure came as the IS fighters continued to push back Kurdish peshmerga troops, allowing them to overrun more northern towns and prompted French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to call for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
"France is very deeply concerned by the latest advances of (IS militants) in the north of Iraq and the taking of Qaraqosh, the biggest Christian city in Iraq, as well as by the intolerable abuses that were committed," Fabius said in a statement.
The French organisation “Fraternite en Irak” said on its Facebook page that a majority of residents in Nineveh escaped late into the night when the militants took over Qaraqhosh and neighbouring towns.
In France, half a dozen activists welcomed the new arrivals who flew in from Baghdad with a bevy of luggage in tow.
The French government said they would grant them asylum visas on July 28 after the capture of Mosul prompted hundreds of Christian families to flee.
This is the first family to arrive under the this agreement, according to the Association of Mutual Aid for Eastern Minorities (AEMO).
The eleven refugees are related to Archbishop Faraj Raho, leader of the Chaldean Catholic church in northern Iraq, who was kidnapped and murdered on March 13, 2008.
Before the US invasion in 2003, Iraq was home to more than a million Christians, including more than 600,000 in Baghdad.
However, the protracted violence has seen the population one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities plummet significantly to no more than 400,000 Christians.