Last week, we shared the story of the three archbishops from Iraq and Syria denied visas to attend the consecration of the UK’s first Syriac Orthodox Cathedral. Since then it has become clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg and in fact more bishops and senior church leaders have been denied visas for short visits to the UK.
In February this year, two bishops from Sudan were refused visas for an exchange visit with the Diocese of Bradford. Bishop Abdu Al-Nur Kodi and Bishop Hassan James were only granted visas after Lambeth Palace protested to the Home Office. Their case is particularly glaring, given that Sudan is one of the worst countries for Christian persecution. Sudan’s Islamic government is actively seeking to remove the Christian presence from country by seizing church property, arresting Christians and forcing church leaders to flee; under the government’s strict enforcement of sharia, those deemed to be converts from Islam face execution. Those areas of Iraq and Syria under the control of the Islamic State (IS) militant group implement an even harsher regime of extreme intolerance of Christians.
Quite why the UK Home Office are refusing visas to senior church leaders for short pastoral or speaking visits is not yet clear. However, the problem appears to go back several years. In 2012, the BBC reported that the Bishop of St Edmundsbury met with officials from the UK Border Agency – the official body then responsible for issuing or refusing visas – to protest at their refusal to grant a UK visa to the principal of a Bible college in Tanzania for an exchange visit. The visa had been refused despite assurances from the Diocese of St Edmundsbury that they would underwrite all costs.
These visa decisions are not made by ministers: they are made by civil servants. Yet civil servants have to be accountable to ministers, just as ministers are accountable to MPs in Parliament. It is therefore urgent that Home Office ministers start asking searching questions about what has been going on and why.
Yesterday (7 December) the Bishop of Coventry submitted a written question in Parliament “to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to review why the Archbishop of Mosul, the Archbishop of St Matthews and the Archbishop of Homs and Hama were refused visas to travel to the UK from Iraq and Syria to attend the consecration of the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in London”.
The government have until 21 December to provide a written response. In doing so, they must not only explain why this has happened, but also what steps they are taking to prevent it happening again.
We are asking Barnabas Fund supporters in the UK to write to their MPs calling on them to question ministers about what specific actions they are taking on the issue. If these letters can be written now, within the next few days, they have the possibility of greater impact as the written response to the Bishop of Coventry’s question is prepared.