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ICC Note: More than 150,000 Iraqi Christians have been driven from their homes in the past year and a half. Violence by ISIS extremists made it impossible to remain in the cities and villages where they have lived for more than 1,500 years. Many are still in the region, trying to find a way to stay. Some, like these families, have made it to France where they have been welcomed and are now starting to rebuild their lives.

09/30/2015 Iraq (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.

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