It is hard to imagine a more incongruous headline – just as the world’s attention focuses on the liberation of Mosul, the UK government has refused to grant a visa to the Archbishop of Mosul to attend the consecration of the UK’s first Syriac Orthodox cathedral, a church whose flock includes many refugees fleeing persecution from Islamists in Iraq and Syria.
Last week saw great celebrations as St Thomas Cathedral in London was consecrated by the worldwide head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. HM the Queen sent a personal message, while Prince Charles was the guest of honour and addressed the congregation. The service was attended by senior UK church leaders including the Bishop of London, while the UK Prime Minister, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, sent a letter to be read out to the congregation. Mrs May’s letter spoke of how “the appalling violence that has afflicted so many areas of the Middle East reminds us how fortunate we are to live in a country where different religious beliefs are not only tolerated, but welcomed”.
Yet that welcome did not extend to either Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Archbishop of Mosul or to Timothius Mousa Shamani, the Archbishop of St Matthew’s (which covers the Nineveh valley in northern Iraq) who were refused UK visas to attend the cathedral’s consecration in London. The UK also refused to grant a visa to Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, the Archbishop of Homs and Hama in Syria. In his case the British Embassy told him that they would not waver from their policy of not granting visas to anyone in Syria. The diocese of each of these three archbishops has been taken over by Islamic State (IS) with Christians executed, enslaved, or forced to accept dhimmitude and pay jizya. Churches there have been either destroyed or converted into mosques. The Archbishop of Mosul was in fact the last senior churchman to leave Mosul in July 2014 when IS seized it. His cathedral is now a mosque.
Yet despite this, both these very senior church leaders whose church members are experiencing genocide were denied visas to attend the consecration of the UK’s first Syriac Orthodox cathedral, which provides spiritual care for some of their flock who have managed to obtain refuge in the UK.
The reasons given for the Archbishop of Mosul and the Archbishop of St Matthew’s being refused UK visas are at best spurious – claims that they did not have enough money to support themselves in the UK and that they might not leave the UK. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to current world news reports would know that both men have pressing pastoral responsibilities as previously Christian areas held by IS are liberated. Not only that, both men also have long-term visas for several other western countries including the US and the EU’s Schengen zone, while the Archbishop of Mosul also has a permanent visa for Australia.
Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawood, the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the UK asked, “Why do they treat Christians like this?”
The refusal to grant a few days’ UK visa to these very senior church leaders is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the UK Home Office. In fact they are not the first persecuted Christian leaders to be refused visas for pastoral visits to the UK, nor is this problem confined to Orthodox Christians. Earlier this year we had hoped that Majeed Rashid Kurdi, an evangelical pastor from Iraq whom Barnabas Fund's Operation Safe Havens programme had rescued from Iraq, would join us for our recent UK speaking tour. Yet he too was refused a UK visa, even though his family is now permanently resident in the Czech Republic. A month ago we also reported two separate cases of Protestant pastors from Zimbabwe who had been severely persecuted by the Mugabe regime, and who were also denied visas to attend speaking engagements in the UK.
Yet, at the same time this is happening, radical Islamist leaders are being told they can have visas – even though they represent organisations or movements that incite violence and persecution against Christians. For example, we have previously reported that the UK Home Office recently issued guidance stating that there should be a presumption that senior members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood should be granted asylum in the UK – despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly incited violence against Egyptian Christians, leading to around 80 churches being burnt down since 2013, and has declared a violent jihad against the Egyptian government. In July this year visas were granted for a tour of UK mosques by two Pakistani Islamic leaders who have been prominent campaigners to “honour” the murder of anyone opposed to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and who also called for the immediate killing of Christians accused of blasphemy, such as Aasia Bibi.
We have previously written to Home Office ministers to raise concerns about these issues and in response they have pointed out that, as ministers do not deal directly with visa applications, they cannot comment on individual cases. Though this is strictly speaking correct, there is clearly a serious systemic problem when Islamist leaders who advocate persecution of Christians are given the green light telling them that their applications for UK visas will be looked on favourably, while visas for short pastoral visits to the UK are denied to senior Christian leaders, such as the Archbishop of Mosul, whose congregations are facing genocide. This is an urgent issue that Home Office ministers need to grasp and remedy.