Wednesday, 20 August 2014

'Will no one rid me of these turbulent priests'

David Cameron has a problem with bishops. Several of these troublesome fellows have spent the last few weeks castigating the government for failing to do enough to help Iraqi Christians.

As the influence and terror of the Islamic State has grown, Christians, along with the ancient Yazidi community, have faced a very stark choice; either to convert, flee or die. The threat of genocide is real. In the last week, horrifying reports have emerged that captured Yazidi men, women and children, refusing to convert, have been buried alive. Reuters reporter Humeyra Pamuk, for example, spoke to Samo Ilyas Ali – one of those who fled – who recounted what happened when IS forces entered his village and started digging holes in the ground:

‘We did not understand. Then they started to put people in those holes, those people were alive.

‘After a while we heard gunfire. I can’t forget that scene. Women, children, crying for help. We had to run for our lives, there was nothing to be done for them.’

It is against this background that the bishops have spoken so forcibly and implored the government to offer asylum to Christians, fleeing from places like Mosul and Qaraqosh, where Christian heritage dates back 1,600 years.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker, told The Observer

‘We would be failing to fulfil our obligations were we not to offer sanctuary. Having intervened so recently and extensively in Iraq, we have, even more than other countries, a moral duty in the UK. Given the vast amounts of money that we spent on the war in Iraq, the tiny cost of bringing some people fleeing for their lives to this country and allowing them to settle – and who, in due course, would be an asset to our society – would seem to be minuscule.’

Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, added:

‘I would be very disturbed if the government refused to do anything. The situation in Iraq is absolutely horrendous. It would sit very ill at ease with our values if nothing were to be offered. I am disappointed nothing has transpired so far.’

The pressure continues; in the last couple of days, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev. Nicholas Baines, has written to the Prime Minister, with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking for the government's policy towards Iraq to be clarified. Cuttingly, one of his questions reads:

'The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yazidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any one particular time?'

And the other day, the hugely admirable Canon Andrew White, from Baghdad's St George's Church - a man who has surely done more to promote a positive of Britain and its best values in Iraq than any other - appeared on the Today programme to add his voice to those campaigning to offer asylum to up to 30,000 Iraqi Christians:

'Christianity [in Iraq] could be nearly dead and Britain has refused asylum to any Iraqi and now we are desperate. It is a matter of life and death.'

Yet, despite the urgency of the situation and the vocal interventions, the government has remained remarkably silent on the issue; it almost seems as though they're embarrassed. After the first article appeared in The Observer, this was the comment which came from the government:

‘The UK has a proud record of offering sanctuary to those who need it. Every claim for asylum is carefully considered on its individual merits.’

This frankly pathetic, inadequate, statement hardly does justice to the horror of the situation.

It is, of course, true that, historically, Britain has opened its doors to the oppressed; Charles II allowed the Huguenots, escaping the Catholic Church in France, to settle here in the 17th century; more than 100,000 Eastern European Jews settled in the late 19th century, escaping persecution, particularly in Russia; and in the 1972, many Ugandan Asians came here after being expelled by Idi Amin.

But is the claim still justified? Let's just glimpse at a few recent cases

1 - More than 2.5million have fled the fighting in Syria, packing into refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Britain has taken 500.

2 - The government has fought bitterly against demands to allow Afghan interpreters, who worked with British forces during the recent war, to come here and escape the obvious dangers they face. Reluctantly, they have agreed about half of the 1,200 interpreters who were still working with the British military on December 19, 2012, will be able to come here. It’s still hugely unsatisfactory and a betrayal of people who risked their lives to help British troops. Any who stopped working before this date will not be eligible.

3 - In the case of the Gurkhas – who fought for this country – a it took the charms of Joanna Lumley to embarrass the government into finally acknowledging their cause.

4 - And just a few weeks ago - despite a very high profile campaign against female genital mutilation - Afusat Saliu and her daughters were deported to Nigeria despite the very real risks her children could be targets for the horrible, abusive, procedure from her wider family.

Obviously, asylum is still offered to the desperate. According to the Refugee Council, in 2012 16,918 asylum applications were decided. Of those, ’64% of initial decisions were refusals, 30% were grants of asylum, 5% were grants of Humanitarian Protection or discretionary leave, and 0.5% were grants of leave to remain under family or private life rules'.

This isn't a party political issue, it's a problem which afflicts successive governments. Levels of immigration, rightly or wrongly, remains a major public concern and neither the Conservatives nor Labour - and increasingly the Liberal Democrats too - wants to be seen as a soft touch. The government seems afraid of acknowledging the desperation of the Iraqi Christian community, fearful of how it will be depicted in sections of the media ahead of what will be a tight general election. But simply relying on our 'proud record of offering sanctuary', too often seems to be an excuse for inaction, for blocking asylum and ignoring the plight of those who need our help. On top of all the suffering they are facing, Iraqi Christians do not deserve to be victims of such short-term political imperatives. 

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