Christianity has been a part of Iraq’s history since shortly after the death of Christ. The faith is supposed to have been brought to the Mesopotamia by Saint Thomas, one of the 12 apostles. The Islamic conquests began a long history of persecution: Tamerlane alone was reputed to have order the deaths of tens of thousands of Christians in the 14th century.
Despite its longevity the past few decades has seen the Christian communities of the Middle-East in what may be terminal decline. The chaos unleashed by the Iraq War enabled one of the most brutal persecutions of recent history, and yet the details are still largely unreported, except in excellent summaries such as Ed West’s short e-book ‘The Silence of Our Friends’. At the start of the conflict in 2003, there were still about a million and half Christians in Iraq. Current estimates vary, and reliable information is difficult to get in detail, but it now seems the numbers may be fewer than 200,000. They have disproportionately featured in the numbers of refugees that have fled to neighbouring countries.
One of the victims to feature prominently in the Western press was Paulos Faraj Rahhos, Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul. He was kidnapped in 2008, but insisted his Diocese not pay the release fee, as the diocese had a moral obligation to help the many more impoverished families within their pastoral care. He was beheaded.
This week, three Archbishops of the Syriac Orthodox Church were refused visas to come to the UK; the Archbishop of Mosul; of St Matthew’s; and of Homs and Hama They were intending only to visit: they wished to attend the consecration of St Thomas’ Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in London, the first Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in this country. Yet they were refused visas. It has been reported that this was because it wasn’t clear they had money to support themselves whilst here. This doesn’t sound likely. I think it more probable that they were merely included in a blanket refusal; which would perversely be more to the Government’s credit. Yet a Home Office spokesman issued a statement saying that each application would have been judged on its individual merits. If that is the case, then what does that say about the Home Office?
This action of the Home Office is of a piece with our general refusal to recognise the extent to which Christians in the Middle-East are suffering, We seem unwilling to do this because we don’t want to ask why it is that Christians are being targeted, and whether this proceeds from the religious motivations of other groups.
Photo from UNHCR
For 5 years now there has been an appalling crisis of refugees from Syria, and from Iraq, seeking sanctuary in neighbouring lands, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Our own country, and Europe more generally, has been reluctant to grant asylum to large numbers of these refugees. Those who have been granted asylum in Europe have to a large extent been those who have broken the rules, and marched through Europe into Germany, Sweden, or on to Calais, and thus created a problem that Europeans could not ignore. But those who have stayed in the camps, and who intended for their exile to be a temporary search for asylum, have been left there.
Much of the concern about receiving large-scale immigration from the Middle-East, has been about the fears that this would contribute to the Islamisation of Western Europe. But not all displaced Syrians are Muslim. It may be that a good move forward would be for our refugee program, such as it is, to start directly targeting Christians. There is a moral case, in that they have found themselves persecuted throughout that part of the world, and struggle to find a comfortable home where they can live in safety and security. But there is also the pragmatic case; that they will be more assimilable into Western European culture, and it will be easier to generate broad public support for such an act of charity.