‘I had never been in prison in Iraq’: Iraqi Christian refugees in Britain

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in The Spectator in February 2013

It was after his second death threat that Wissam Shamouy decided to leave home. An Assyrian Orthodox Christian from Bakhdida in Iraq’s highly volatile Nineveh province, the 25-year-old was working part-time in a church-run internet café, while studying at engineering college, when he was told of what awaited him.

“I got some messages, they told me I was going to be killed because of my job, ‘we’re gonna stab you’. I was scared.”

In February 2010 his mother handed over some money to a Kurdish man who smuggled her only child into Turkey and then Greece, and there, without documents, to Britain. He chose England because he spoke the language, and because he was told the country helped with “humanity protection”.

Shamouy claimed asylum upon arrival, was refused and, after being advised by his lawyer to plead guilty to arriving with false documents, was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs. He was there for 122 days. “I had never been in prison in Iraq. I lived with criminals, who had been 20 years in prison, they were fighting in front of me, taking drugs. My mother didn’t know anything about me for three months, nobody did.”

He eventually earned enough money, by saving £1.25 every four weeks, to call his mother and, reciting his prison number – he still remembers it – instructed her to get help from the community here. He now survives off the generosity of other Iraqi Christians and the Church, receives no income support and has been waiting since last September for news of his case.

Nineveh is the historic homeland of Iraq’s Christian Assyrian minority, who trace their faith back to the 2ndcentury, and their Aramaic tongue much further. But it is also an al-Qaeda stronghold and the capital Mosul is sometimes described as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. In October 2008 10,000 fled the city after Sunni gangs went on a killing rampage that left 13 Christians dead. The region is also disputed between Kurds and Sunni Arabs and, to add to any suspicions that there might be no God, is lying on top of a huge reserve of oil.

Saeed Alabazi left Mosul in June 2004, as Iraq descended into chaos. “I lost my shop,” he says. “It was an alcohol shop. They said if you open it again we will kill you.”

He has been in England for eight years, stuck in the asylum system, and fighting deportation, narrowly escaping last June when an order was rescinded at the last minute.

“I have nobody there. My parents are in America, my sister in Australia, another sister in America, my brother in Canada.” He would join them, but having had his asylum application refused in Britain, he has no documents and cannot travel to another country.

“I have no family left in Mosul. Christian people cant live in Mosul or Baghdad. I lost my business, I lost everything.”

Alabazi’s home town of Mosul was for centuries the heart of Aramaic Christianity, a bustling cosmopolitan city of Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Jews, Persians as well as various obscure religious minorities, the Sabeans, Shabeks, Mandeans and the Yezidis. Iraq’s Jewish community, 2,500 years old and 150,000 strong, disappeared in three short years following a wave of persecution after Iraq’s defeat to Israel in 1948.

Christians in Iraq have also been vulnerable. In 1933 Iraqi government forces slaughtered some 3,000 Assyrians in the Simele massacre, an incident that inspired Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to formulate the concept of “genocide”. Under Saddam the Assyrians were persecuted in the north, although on ethnic rather than religious grounds, the Ba’athists emptying many villages.

The past century has been a story of slow decline and emigration, establishing Assyrian and Chaldean communities in the US, Australia, Latin America and later Sweden, home to the largest community in Europe.

The community in Britain, just 5,000 or so, is based in Ealing, and on the walls of the Assyrian Centre are photographs of the Queen and Agha Petros, the Assyrian First World War leader who fought alongside the Allies against the Turks. The Assyrians suffered appalling losses in that period; at least 250,000 (the upper figure is three times that) were massacred in south-east Turkey (in some regions 90 per cent disappeared) in what they call the Sayfo, “sword”, or Assyrian genocide.

After the first war the Assyrian force remained steadfastly loyal to the British, fighting against Arab forces during a 1920 uprising and then helping the British defeat the pro-Axis Baghdad government in the Second World War, as well as seeing action in the Balkans. Small in number but as ferocious as their ancient forebears, the Assyrian Levies called themselves “Britain’s Smallest Ally”. Many British-born Assyrians are citizens on account of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ military service. Alabazi had many relatives in the Levies.

Like Shamouy, Waseem Finaya, 25 and also from Bakhdida, looks young and scared, although also remarkably English looking, pale and sandy-haired. Sunni militants murdered his brother last year, following up a threatening letter (although text messages are often the preferred method). The brother did not have time to get out, but Waseem escaped to Turkey and arrived in England without a passport. His case has gone to the European court, which means that he can at least stay here for three years, even if it’s in abject poverty. He has another brother still in Iraq, along with his parents, but they cannot raise the money to pay the smugglers, and in any case European countries have tightened asylum laws in recent years.

Finaya told the Home Office that he had been threatened because of his religion, but they gave no impression of knowing about the situation for Christians, and said they would send him to Baghdad.

That is telling, for the exodus of the Christians from Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is the great, untold story of our age, and yet it attracts so little attention.

Christianity in Iraq has a rich past and confusing present. Tradition has it that the faith was brought to Mesopotamia by the Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus, and by the second century the Aramaic-speaking people of the region had a thriving church, whose members went on to convert much of Asia. After the Arab conquests Syriac Christians played a pivotal role in Islamic civilisation’s high point; of 60 scholars who preserved the works of the ancients by translating them into Arabic, 58 were Christian (of the other two, one was Jewish and the other a Sabean).

Today there are six Christian denominations (not including tiny numbers of Protestants), the largest of which is the Chaldean Catholic Church, which came into communion with Rome in the 16th century, followed by two Assyrians Orthodox churches. Assyrians speak Aramaic and identify as a distinct Semitic ethnic group, and although the term Chaldo-Assyrians is often used to emphasise the unity of IraqiChristians, some Chaldeans identify simply as Christian Arabs. Others, especially those who hail from southern Turkey, call themselves Syriacs or Arameans and doubt the validity of the term “Assyrian”, which only dates as an ethnic term to the 19th century, but nonetheless consider themselves to be one people.

Chaldo-Assyrians comprise the bulk of Syria’s Christians, whose Aramaic dialect is even closer to that spoken by Christ. Maaloula, a beautiful hillside town 40 miles north of Damascus, is the last surviving stronghold of the dialect spoken by Jesus himself. For now, for Syria’s Christians, and the Iraqis among them, are extremely nervous about the prospect of the Assad regime, however brutal it may be, going down.

They have good reason to be. Before the 2003 invasion Christians in Iraq numbered between 800,000 and 1.4 million, but now just 400,000 remain, a large number of those elderly people who have used up their savings to pay for their children to escape. Of 2 million Iraqi refugees abroad some 30 per cent, are minorities, mostly Christians, according to the UN, the bulk in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, unable to work and living in desperate poverty.

Since 2003 over 900 Iraqi Christians have been murdered, including a bishop and five priests, and over 60 churches have been bombed, but it took the massacre of 50 worshippers at our Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on October 31 2010 to make headlines in the West. This was soon forgotten, even when two weeks later Islamists detonated 11 bombs in Christian suburbs of Baghdad, killing fiveChristians and wounding 33, including a four-month-old baby.

Dora in south Baghdad was once a thriving Christian area, with two cathedrals, a Catholic seminary and a theological college. Today it is marked by a peace wall separating Sunni and Shia controlled districts.Christians are threatened with conversion, exile or death, the women forced to wear the veil (which, ironically, long pre-dates Islam and is thought to have been first used by the ancient Assyrians).

In Baghdad’s churches priests say Mass to empty pews now, those faithful brave enough to attend having to factor in two hours to get through police and army checkpoints and endure body searches. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recently warned that “the end of Christianity inIraq” was approaching.

Within Iraq there has been a steady flow north to the relative safety of Kurdistan. But they are not staying. Earlier this year the International Organisation for Migration found that 850 of 1,350 displaced Christian families it was tracking in the north had left in the past year. Kurdistan may be safer, but land is scarce, unemployment the norm, and Christians are subject to “crime, mafia or militia”, in the words of one cleric. Assyrians have a historic enmity towards the Kurds, and do want to be part of a Kurdish state.

And yet because of its relative safety the Home Office deports Christians to Kurdistan. This is the fate awaiting Alabazi, even though he has no connection to that region, says that “Kurdistan is different country” and worries about attacks on alcohol shops, as happened last December in Dohuk province.

So what can Britain do? It is difficult. As Home Office Minister Alistair Burt warns, any special refugee status might “act as an encouragement to extremists to push the Christians out”.

He says: “This community has lived in the Middle East cheek by jowl with Muslim neighbours for centuries and with most of their Muslim neighbours they’ve rubbed along perfectly well. There is no reason why they should leave the places they have lived for generations.”

Giving Christians priority would give “an entirely false impression that somehow they are Western and therefore must lean to the West and it’s the West that’s been protecting them. We will perpetrate a false sense that Christianity is somehow a Western construct. I don’t think that’s in the long-term interests of theChristian minority there.”

Burt says Britain can only give help to individual Christians, although even that does not appear to be the case in reality. Sweden, in contrast, does recognise that Iraqi minorities have special needs, their Migration Board stating that in the case of Iraqis “the fact that the person belongs to a vulnerable minority group should be taken into consideration”.

And legally it is not impossible. Article 1 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

Although refugee conventions were created to help people (mainly Germans) who had been ethnically cleansed following the Second World War, much of the moral impetus came from the shame the world felt about the 1938 Evian Conference, when the nations of the world left the Jews to their fate.

Iraqi Christians have heard the Foreign Office arguments before, and they do not want to leave. They tend to be fiercely patriotic about Iraq, and see themselves as connected to an ancient civilisation that has been enriched by many layers of language, religion and culture. Islamisation is wiping that clean, drawing a black veil over its rich history.

And Iraq’s clerics are divided over what should be done. Catholic Archbishop Basha Warda, who estimates that the Christian population is down to 250,000, has said that given the opportunity to settle in the west, the community would soon disappear. But Athanasius Dawood, archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church, has repeatedly called for Britain, and other European countries, to grant Iraqi Christianshumanitarian asylum.

Another option favoured by many Assyrians is the creation of a 19th province in the Nineveh Plains, within an area where Christians and other minorities consist a majority (the area is a tenth the size of Wales, to use the unofficial international measurement of surface area). Chaldeans tend to be more critical, feeling it would become a magnet for terrorism which could only be defended with a permanent Western military presence.

But, says Emmanuel Yacoub, who left during the First Gulf War, autonomy presents the only possibility of staying in Iraq: “99 per cent of Christians want to leave Iraq. Those in Syria are being targeted by religious Muslims, but they can’t go back to Iraq. There’s no government in Iraq, half of the people are unemployed. It’s really sad, you know.”

There is little doubt that providing sanctuary in Britain would accelerate the exodus, not just in Iraq but elsewhere in the Middle East, and that would be an enormous loss to that region.

But it would save lives, and would cost Britain little. Central to our modern national myth as a nation of immigrants is the story of the French Huguenots, who came as refugees in the late 17th century. Yet although we are taught about this exodus as proof of Britain’s multicultural history, little notice is paid to the group who today most resemble the Huguenots, an industrious, highly educated minority who share the same religious as the British and are persecuted on account of it.

A more generous policy would also salvage national honour, for Britain owes a historic debt towards its small but steadfast allies. There is an Arab saying: better to be the enemy of the British, for that way they will try to buy you; for if you are their friend, they will most certainly sell you. That has, sadly, been the recent story of Iraq’s Christians.

What do you think?