Last week we revealed how three archbishops from Iraq and Syria were refused visas to attend the consecration of the UK’s first Syriac Orthodox cathedral. As we previously reported, they were not the only ones.
In the last few months, a number of Christian leaders from contexts of persecution who have been invited to undertake speaking engagements in the UK, have also been refused visas. The Prime Minister was also asked in parliament last week about a similar refusal to grant visas for a twinning arrangement between the Church of Scotland and a diocese in Pakistan.
The situation we revealed last week became the front page story in the Sunday Express and was carried by other national newspapers such as the Daily Mail and The Times, as well as being picked up by news media around the world, including in the Middle East and Russia. Yet there is a deeper question that remains unanswered: why is this happening?
The issue is not confined to the UK, it has also become clear that similar problems exist in the United States. A few weeks ago we reported how leaked documents suggest that there was a deliberate attempt to exclude Christians of Middle Eastern heritage from senior posts in the Obama administration. We have also reported on the scandalously low percentage of Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq admitted to both the UK and USA; in the UK only 2% of those admitted are Christians and in the US approximately half of one percent.
Despite the US government accepting, in March 2016, after pressure from Congress, that genocide was taking place in Syria among Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims, of the 10,801 Syrian refugees admitted to the USA in the year to September, only 56 were Christians, 17 Yazidis and 20 Shi’as. This flies in the face of widely accepted fact that, prior to the present conflict, around 10% of Syria’s population were Christians. Some would argue that much of the blame for this lies with the UN, to whom the selection of refugees has been outsourced, but that cannot excuse the UK and US governments for allowing this situation to continue when the international press has been reporting this sorry state of affairs for more than a year.
The refusal of visas to the three archbishops whose flocks are facing genocide puts the spotlight on this issue. It was clear that the men were very senior church leaders. It was also clear they had been invited for a specific occasion, at which Prince Charles was the guest of honour and personal letters from the both HM the Queen and the Prime Minister were read out. It was also clear that, contrary to Home Office claims, these archbishops did have the financial means sustain themselves in the UK. Indeed Barnabas Fund is heavily involved in funding the archbishops and the suffering Christians in their dioceses. When the visas were refused, Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawood, the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the UK, sent the refusal letters to Lambeth Palace asking for assistance, although Lambeth Palace have as yet been unable to confirm to us whether or not they contacted the Home Office on the archbishop’s behalf.
One thing is clear: the sympathetic official statements about the terrible suffering of Christians in the Middle East are not being reflected in the treatment suffering believers are receiving at the hands of governments.
So, why are Christians from the Middle East being treated this way by the UK and US governments? The short answer is that we simply do not know, but it is clearly the responsibility of members of parliament to press ministers to urgently ask some hard questions of those making these decisions.
In particular, they need to ask:
1. Is this a numbers game – i.e. is the pressure to cut immigration figures causing civil servants who make the visa decisions to focus on Christians as a soft target, who do not normally complain and cannot accuse them of Islamophobia?
2. Are they – bizarre as it seems – somehow concerned that the presence of church leaders from Muslim-majority contexts where Christians face extreme persecution could in some way provoke community unrest, or worse? If so, Christians are being expected to pay the price for appeasement.
3. Are western governments so concerned about inter-faith relations that Christians facing persecution are seen as something of an embarrassment – a subject that they would rather not talk about in case it upsets some members of the Muslim community? This accusation has also sometimes been levelled at us at Barnabas Fund. Our response is simple: “We refuse to apologise for the fact that Christians are persecuted” and this is the line that Western governments and church leaders need to take too.