UK Home Office claims right decisions made when Iraqi and Syrian archbishops denied visas. Barnabas Aid demands an inquiry

Iraq, Syria, United Kingdom

We are grateful to the many UK supporters who have written to their MPs about church leaders from countries where Christians are persecuted being denied visas to visit the UK. A number of people have shown us letters saying that Home Office ministers have assured their MPs “that every application is considered on its individual merits, in line with UK immigration rules and guidance”. In other words, “There is no problem – it was right to deny the archbishops from Iraq and Syria visas to visit the UK.”

At the end of this article we have included the latest list of senior Christian leaders denied visas to visit the UK. However, we need to ask the question:

Why is the Home Office denying visas to Christian leaders from countries where Christians are persecuted when they have been invited to the UK to speak about persecution?

There are three possible explanations:

  1. There is a deliberate UK policy to deny visas to Christian leaders from such countries (if true this would be the direct responsibility of ministers).
  2. UK government policy, for whatever reason, indirectly discriminates against such Christian leaders (i.e. the problem is government policy – again the responsibility of ministers).
  3. The civil servants in the Home Office are making visa decisions that discriminate against Christian leaders – either on an individual basis or because of a culture within the Home Office (i.e. the civil servants not ministers are to blame).

Let us be clear – Barnabas Aid are not suggesting it is a deliberate policy of the UK government to discriminate against Church leaders from countries where Christians are persecuted (i.e. explanation 1). In fact, we suspect ministers are privately somewhat embarrassed about the situation.

However, ministers are incredibly busy people and rely on a team of civil servants to write responses for them. In other words, even though these responses go out in ministers’ names and are sometimes even signed by them, they have actually been prepared by civil servants.

Yet, by stating “every application is considered on its individual merits, in line with UK immigration rules and guidance” such responses are effectively saying: “Civil servants are not to blame – we are just following the rules.” (i.e. explanation 3). This implicitly blames ministers (explanation 2) for a policy that blocks UK visit visas for Church leaders, including bishops and archbishops, from countries where Christians are persecuted – but perversely grants them to Islamists who advocate that very persecution. Clearly, ministers should never have allowed civil servants to respond to this situation by writing letters in their name claiming in effect, “There is no problem – it was right to deny the archbishops from Iraq and Syria visas to visit the UK.”

Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Archbishop of Mosul. One of the archbishops refused UK visas
Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Archbishop of Mosul, one of the archbishops refused a UK visa

There is however, an obvious way that ministers can get themselves out of this quagmire. The Home Secretary must immediately set up an inquiry into anti-Christian prejudice within the Home Office.

As we report elsewhere in Christian Action this week, the issue of short-term visitor visas is only one part of that problem: the Home Office has allowed the scandalous situation to continue whereby the percentage of Syrian Christians among those admitted to the UK under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme has now fallen to less than 1% of all referrals, despite Christians in Syria facing genocide.  Whilst the UN, to whom the Home Office outsources its selection of refugees, is almost certainly largely to blame, it is the Home Office that has allowed this situation to continue.

For the record, let us just recap the latest list of visas that have been denied over the last year to church leaders from countries where Christians are persecuted:

December 2016

  • Senior Egyptian Christian clerics have complained to the British ambassador and asked why their bishops are being denied visas to visit the UK. They report that the only response has been to say that the decisions are made by the British Embassy in Amman (Jordan).

November 2016

  • The Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq.
  • The Archbishop of St Matthews (The Nineveh Plains, in Iraq).
  • The Archbishop of Homs and Hama in Syria.

All were denied visas to attend the consecration of the UK’s first Syriac Orthodox Cathedral whose congregation include many refugees who have fled genocide in Iraq and Syria at the hands of IS and other jihadists.

October 2016

  • Gift Konjana a church leader from Zimbabwe who has been arrested 34 times, had his house petrol bombed, faced death many times and rescued people from torture camps on his own in the dead of night. He has been invited to speak at a major event in London – but was unable to do so as his visa was refused.
  • Evan Mawarire, another Zimbabwean pastor, who is leading protests against the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, had his visa refused just hours before he was due to board a flight to the UK.

September 2016

  • Majeed Rashid Kurdi, an evangelical pastor whom Barnabas Aid's Operation Safe Havens programme had rescued from Iraq, was due to be part of Barnabas Aid’s November speaking tour of Northern Ireland and Scotland. However, he too was refused a UK visa, even though his family is now permanently resident in the Czech Republic.

February 2016

  • Bishop Abdu Al-Nur Kodi
  • Bishop Hassan James 

Both from Sudan, which is now one of the most difficult places in the world for Christians, were denied visas to visit the UK – which were only granted after pressure from Lambeth Palace.

We should emphasise that these are only those that have been brought to our attention; there are likely to be more.

At the same time, Islamists who advocate the killing of Christians have been granted visas for preaching tours of mosques, with a Scottish Sunday newspaper exposing another example earlier this month.  Even if these are regarded as mistakes, official Home Office guidance recommends that senior members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood should be considered for asylum, despite the fact they have been involved in inciting large-scale violence against Egyptian Christians since the overthrown of their Muslim Brotherhood government three years ago – with more than 80 churches attacked. In fact, only last week President al-Sisi accused fugitive Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled to Qatar, of training and financing the bombing of St Peter’s Church adjacent to Cairo cathedral which killed 27 Christians and wounded dozens more on 10 December. This is in sharp contrast to Egyptian Christian bishops denied visas to visit the UK and suggests that specific discrimination against Christians is taking place.

Clearly, there is an institutional problem in the Home Office and it would reflect creditably on ministers if they were immediately to set up an inquiry to deal with it.