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France offers asylum to Iraqi Christians

Romain Lafabregue, AFP | Rally in French city of Lyon in support of persecuted Iraqi Christians

French leaders have announced they are adopting added measures to help Iraqi Christians, with support growing in France for the religious minority being run out of their homeland in northern Iraq by ISIS jihadists.

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a joint statement on Monday that they are taking steps to ease the suffering of Christians now fleeing northern Iraq en masse.

“We will aid those who have been displaced following the threats from the Islamic State [formerly known as Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS] and who have taken refuge in [the autonomous Iraqi region of] Kurdistan,” the ministers said in reference to the thousands of Christians who have fled Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, in recent days.

“We are ready, if they so desire, to help facilitate asylum in our territory,” the statement added, although it did not provide any details about the kind of aid France would provide in northern Iraq or the number of asylum seekers the country would accept.

Islamist fighters that took control of Mosul on June 10 have ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay a "non-Muslim tax" or face death, sending an unprecedented wave of Christian refugees toward Kurdistan.

Homes of Christians in Mosul have been identified with spray-paint and many feared the possibility of mass killings.

“The persecution of Iraq’s minority Christians amid the jihadists' offensive is completely revolting,” Geneviève Jacques, president of La Cimade, one of France’s most prominent refugee NGOs, told FRANCE 24. “Christian communities are a part of the history of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East."

“We are overjoyed that France has offered to open its doors to these populations,” Jacques said, “Especially because there is little place else for them to go. Regional neighbours, like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are already flooded by refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.”

Rally outside Notre Dame

The announcement by French ministers followed a rally in support of Iraq’s persecuted Christians that gathered around five thousand people outside Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the French capital on Sunday.

Rally in support of Iraqi Christians, as seen from one of the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Rally in support of Iraqi Christians, as seen from one of the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

A similar event took place in the east-central city of Lyon on Saturday, with two top French Catholic priests – Lyon Archbishop Philippe Barbarin and Bishop Michel Dubost of Evry – announcing they would travel to Mosul this week in a sign of support.

People at the gatherings over the weekend said that France had for been silent concerning the plight of Iraq's Christians for too long.

The Christian's numbers have dropped from around 1.5 million people in the 1990s to less than 400,000 today, according to rights groups.

The Cimade’s Jacques said that while she welcomed the French government’s pledge to do more for the religious minority, she feared the measures would be superficial.

“We hope that efforts to help Iraqi Christians will not only be symbolic, but really respond to the refugee crisis on hand,” she said.

Many rights groups, including the Cimade, say they had previously expressed indignation that the French government had offered asylum to just 500 Syrian refugees, when more than three million of them have been forced to flee their homes in the past three years.

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