LOURDES, France (Reuters) - For Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants in their native land reaching Lourdes, the French town long synonymous with miraculous religious visions, feels little short of a modern-day miracle.
Arriving in the town where peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858, the refugees have also experienced real Christian charity through the efforts of some dedicated, Lourdes-based compatriots, an ex-soldier and the local parish priest.
“We are split between sadness and joy. But Lourdes is like a flower offering us her perfume. It is the town of the Virgin Mary, giving us our faith,” said one of the refugees, Youssif, 48, a former teacher of the Aramaic and Syriac languages.
Lourdes, nestling in the Pyrenees foothills near the Spanish border and buzzing with international pilgrims, is a world away from the horrors Youssif, his wife and two sons have escaped.
Their life was turned upside down on August 7, 2014, when Islamic State, which espouses a puritanical and highly intolerant version of Islam, seized their town of Qaraqosh in northern Iraq, home to a large Christian community.
“We had to hide the fact that we were Christians. But it is obviously very difficult to hide your religious beliefs. We are Christians, that’s our life,” said Youssif, who like other Iraqis in Lourdes declined to give his surname for safety reasons.
Speaking Aramaic, the language Jesus is believed to have spoken, Youssif described the fall of his town to Islamic State and his family’s escape to the relative safety of nearby Iraqi Kurdistan before their move to France.
Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria over the past two years, has killed many Christians, whom it regards as infidels. It has also killed members of other religious minorities as well as Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to the group’s self-declared ‘caliphate’.
Iraq’s ancient Christian population has more than halved over the past decade, from about 1 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, to barely 400,000 by July 2014.
Responding to the latest surge of migrants fleeing to Europe from the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and beyond, Pope Francis urged Catholics this month to open their doors to the refugees - something Nahren and Amer, living in Lourdes, had already done.
The Iraqi Christian couple, who fled to France more than a decade ago, helped to organize the escape to France of Youssif and dozens of other Iraqi Christians with the active involvement of their parish priest, Jean-Francois Duhar.
“They asked me if we could help them to bring some of their friends and relatives (to France),” recalled Duhar.
He and his bishop contacted the French consulate in Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, just days after France agreed last year to grant asylum to persecuted Iraqi Christians. Visas were issued for those with host families to go to.
About 15 Iraqi Christian families have arrived in Lourdes over the past year. Up to 20 families, roughly 70 to 80 people, are expected to have reached the town by early 2016.
Under a local Catholic initiative called Echo 65 run by retired soldier Pascal Vigneron, the refugees stay with Amer and Nahren at first before being sent to other homes in the parish.
“(It provides) an opportunity for them to acclimatize and get some explanations about France,” said Vigneron.
Youssif wants to get a job and send his sons to university in France but that may prove difficult. Of the 60 Iraqis now in Lourdes only one is employed, partly due to high unemployment in the region and to their lack of French language skills.
Vigneron said many of the Iraqis also showed little desire to find work.
“They said to us, a job? Not now ... I was mad to start with. But then I thought again. I cannot know what they have been through, or how I would have coped if I had gone through what they’ve endured,” he said.
One refugee, Matti, is unlikely to work in the near future. A roofer by trade, he suffered a fall 24 years ago that left him partly paralyzed.
Along with his wife Heyam and son Marwan, Matti, 54, said he was held hostage in his own house by Islamic State for a month before a Muslim man helped them to escape one night to Arbil.
Their luck has improved further, with accommodation that caters to Matti’s needs.
Their French host Michel, 63, said: “My mother was handicapped and I had done some work in my own house to accommodate her. I felt we had to welcome Matti.”
The language is clearly a big obstacle.
“They are still at the rudimentary stage (of learning French). They spend a lot of time together so they don’t get to practise their French much,” said another local host, Gonzague Amyot d‘Inville, head of the Cite Saint Pierre center that funds poor pilgrims visiting the town.
But the father of six said he was still able to make a connection early on with his Iraqi guests - a woman and her two adult children who lived in his home for almost four months.
“On the first evening, the young man wanted to contact his girlfriend (via the Internet). As the network wasn’t working well, I had to take him to the only place in the village with a connection. And that was the cemetery, so obviously we had a good laugh about that,” he said.
Lourdes mayor Josette Bourdeu said the town was glad to welcome the Iraqi Christians and that it would also take its share of refugees recently allocated by Paris to the Hautes-Pyrenees region as part of the European Union’s efforts to resettle some of the refugees pouring into Europe.
But Bourdeu also expressed concern about taking in more refugees than the town is able to absorb. “I don’t want to create a ghetto,” she said.
Vigneron was undaunted by the challenge, saying his association hoped to welcome up to 24 families and that it was well-placed to make the project a success.
“I‘m afraid that the French state will find apartments for some refugees and then walk away,” he said. “We, however, are here to help over the long haul.”
Over that sort of time frame, the Iraqis of Lourdes have their own dreams.
Matti hopes to return eventually to Iraq, while his son Marwan, 25, who starts music lessons next month, says he too has a dream - “to be a big star”.
Editing by Andrew Callus and Gareth Jones