When Jesus fled from Bethlehem, a Herod in pursuit
A Gentile nation gave him rest, to Egypt lay their route,
Escaping genocidal crime, where mothers wept and cried.
Who knows what darkness might have been, if that poor Child had died?
And so we ask at Christmastime, what would our country do?
If faced with Joseph, Mary and the Christ-child trudging through
The Middle Eastern winter, fleeing genocidal lair?
Would we, the gentle Christians care, or leave them cold and bare?
Now Jesus flees from Syria, we will not let him in.
We’d rather help the other folk, than aid our Christian kin.
We’ve graced him with a festival and called it with his name
But His we left out in the cold, their claim our lasting shame.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus was born His mother “wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the normal traveller’s lodging”. The Greek word can mean either guest room or inn or caravanserai – but the effect was the same. A young mother, doubtless scared at going into labour for the first time, far away from family and friends – not even able to stay with the other travellers; forced to give birth in the dark in the place where animals were kept and doubtless with the dung and flies that went with them. Luke doesn’t tell us why there was no room for Joseph and Mary, but he tells us in the previous verse that Joseph went to his home town, Bethlehem, “with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child”. The stigma that implied may have excluded them from the caravanserai or inn where other travellers stayed.
And it didn’t get better. Before they were able to return to their home and family in Galilee they had to flee a genocide that specifically targeted those such as themselves and escaped in the dead of night to a foreign country.
That today is the experience of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Christians. They are excluded from the normal refugee camps, either through fear - with a long history of massacres of Christians in the region - or through prejudice. Some time ago Barnabas Aid asked Christian leaders in the Middle East if they knew of any Christians in refugee camps. One told us, “we did once have a couple who tried to live there, we had to get them out in the middle of the night when we heard people were planning to kill them.”
Many Christians fleeing the war in Syria live in half-built buildings or makeshift shelters, not dissimilar from the cold, damp conditions in which Jesus was born. Just as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Judea targeted a specific group, i.e. Jewish boys under two, so the genocide in Syria specifically targets Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim minorities such as Yazidis and Shi’a.
Yet, the extraordinary thing is that the refugee policies of Western countries such as the USA and UK admit only a tiny handful of Christians. This number vastly under-represents the proportion of Christians in Syria’s pre-war population, but is truly shocking when Christians are being specifically targeted by jihadist groups intent on cleansing the area of its entire non-Muslim population.
There are some noble exceptions to this such as Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic and Poland which between them have taken over 1,000 Syrian and Iraqi Christians under Barnabas Aid’s Operation Safe Havens programme. Yet these are exceptions.
In September the US government proudly announced that it had admitted 10,801 Syrian refugees in the previous twelve months. Yet a closer look at the figures showed that only 56 of these were Syrian Christians, representing a mere half of one percent (0.5%). In the UK, as we report this week, a similar situation exists. A freedom of information request shown to Barnabas Aid reveals that in the twelve months prior to 30 September 2016 there were only 64 Syrian Christians out of a total of 4,175 Syrians given UK refugee visas i.e. just 1.5%. In both the UK and USA more than 97% of Syrian refugee visas had been granted to Muslims, despite it being widely accepted that around 10% of Syria’s pre-war population were Christians.
So why is this happening? Why are Western countries such as the UK and USA saying, “no room at the inn” to Syrian Christians fleeing genocide?
1. There is clearly a significant problem of institutional discrimination against Christians in the United Nations to which the US and UK governments outsource the selection of vulnerable refugees. A history of repeated genocides against Christians in the Syria region over the last two centuries (1842-43, 1860, 1877, 1894-96, 1909, 1915-23, 1933), reinforced by the day-to-day discrimination many Middle eastern Christians experience from Muslims, makes them reluctant to register with Muslim UN officials, fearful of what may happen to their personal details. However, the tiny percentage of Syrian Christians recommended by the UN to western governments indicates that the UN itself has a serious problem on the ground in terms of anti-Christian discrimination.
2. Political correctness creates a tendency for both the UN and Western governments to focus on refugees from certain groups, rather than others. The refugee admission figures for the UK and USA tell their own story.
3. Security – the growing number of UK visit visas denied to senior Church leaders from countries where Christians are persecuted raises the question of whether there is an attempt to prevent Christians coming to the UK and speaking about their experience of persecution in case it inflames tensions within the Muslim community. If there is any truth in this, then persecuted Christians are being sacrificed in order to appease Islamists who threaten violence.
4. Institutional prejudice against Christians by overly-secularised government departments. As we report in this week’s Christian Action, the UK Home Office’s claim that they followed correct procedures in refusing visit visas to three archbishops from Iraq and Syria strongly suggests that there is a serious problem of institutional discrimination and anti-Christian prejudice in the Home Office. Similarly, the apparent failure of the Home Office to robustly challenge the UN over its massive under-representation of Syrian Christians in those it recommends for refugee resettlement in the UK also points to there being a significant problem. That is why we are this week calling on Home Office ministers to institute an inquiry.
Yet the sad fact is that, whatever the reasons - whether out of prejudice, fear or just a lethargic reluctance to challenge either - at the very time of year when we celebrate the Saviour’s birth, Western nations such as the USA and UK are saying to Syrian Christians fleeing genocide, “for Christians, there is no room at the inn”.