ARBIL Iraq (Reuters) - On a warm evening at Arbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan some 150 mostly Christian refugees anxiously waited to flee their homeland aboard a French government plane.
The refugees, of all ages and from 25 different families, had one message as they prepared to fly to Paris to escape the threat of Islamic State militants: Christians and Muslims can no longer live together in Iraq.
Shakeep, a 46-year-old lawyer who worked at Mosul’s main law court, was taking his wife, mother, daughter and nephew to Tours in western France, where his uncle lives. One bag each was all they had left of their belongings.
“There is no future in Iraq. There can be no future between Muslims and Christians here. I leave my life. I’m between sadness and happiness. But with Daech, we can’t come back,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The family left Mosul six weeks ago after being given an ultimatum to convert or be killed by the Islamic State militants, who have seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
France has led European efforts to bring humanitarian aid to refugees. The government plane, an Airbus A310, delivered 10 more tonnes of blankets, tents, jerry cans and hygiene kits before transporting the refugees back to Paris.
“There are people sleeping outdoors at the moment, but the focus of this delivery is to prepare for the thousands who will still be here in the winter,” a French diplomat said. “It’s a veritable ethnic cleansing that we’ve witnessed here.”
French fighter jets on Friday launched strikes inside Iraq for the first time as part of an international coalition that will initially focus on pushing Islamic State back from Iraq to its power base in Syria. It has also delivered weapons, mostly machine guns and ammunition, to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
France, under pressure from public opinion to admit more Christians from the Middle East, has already taken in around 100 people since Islamic State launched its military offensive in Iraq in June.
About 40 Christians arrived from northern Iraq at the end of August, based on strict criteria that they had family ties in France and sufficient resources to survive there. Another 60 have also come by their own means.
For most of the refugees, coming to France brings fear of the unknown. Few speak French and most have never before even taken a plane, let alone travelled to a Western country.
Michel, 56, an electrical engineer from the Christian town of Qaraqosh, held no hope of getting work in France at his age with no French. But he was heading with his two daughters, son and wife to the city of Lyon, where his wife’s brother lives.
“The situation there (in Qaraqosh) was impossible when Daech came,” he said. “They wanted Shariah. They wanted to impose their Islam and they want no Christians.
“We escaped to Arbil from Qaraqosh at the start of August. There were bombs and fighting between Daech and the Peshmerga. Daech took everything: food, televisions, refrigerator, everything. It’s difficult to stay here as a Christian.”
Iraq’s ancient Christian population has more than halved over the past decade or so, from about 1 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to barely 400,000 by July this year.
Sami, a 28-year old IT technician, is a Sunni Muslim but said he had to leave because his wife is Christian and such mixed marriages are no longer tolerated in Iraq.
“I see this as a chance to start a new life. We are in a Muslim country here and they will always say Christians can’t marry Muslims. My family doesn’t accept this,” he said.
“I was lucky to get on this plane,” Sami added, referring to the fact that unlike many waiting to board the government plane he had no ties to France. “I don’t think I will come back.”
The United Nations says there are now about 1.2 million displaced Iraqis, including 850,000 in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq where many live in dire conditions.
An estimated 200,000 Christians have fled their homes in the Nineveh region of northern Iraq since Islamic State swept through their villages this summer, demanding they convert to Islam, pay taxes for being Christians or face death.
More than 10,000 Iraqi Christians have already applied for asylum, according to AEMO, a French association that helps minorities in the Middle East, since Paris said in July it would be ready to take hundreds if not thousands.
Among the passengers flying to Paris on Saturday were also a number of Yazidis. Followers of an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism, they fled their homeland in the Sinjar mountains as Islamic State militants, who see them as devil worshippers, seized towns and carried out mass killings in August.
Welcoming the refugees personally at Charles de Gaulle airport on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that taking too many refugees would hand a symbolic victory to Islamic State, which has the ultimate objective of ridding the country of all those who oppose its austere version of Islam.
“We will do everything in our power to rid Iraq of the throat-slitters of Daech so that one day some of these people can go home when the situation is better,” he told Reuters as jubilant French Iraqis welcomed newly arrived family members.
“The militants have committed massacres in Iraq and Syria, but this is a threat for all the region and for us too. We are defending ourselves here. It is not just an act of generosity.”
Many of the refugees, traumatised by their experiences of the last three months, clearly could not envisage ever returning to a country so deeply split along ethnic and sectarian lines.
“France offers us a better life than Iraq for our health and safety. We hope to stay here,” said 28-year-old Jade.
Writing by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones