Britain must help Christians in peril in the Middle East

This week’s issue of the Spectator is very important and worth buying – i.e. I’m in it, arguing that Britain should take action to alleviate the suffering of Iraq’s Christians, if necessary by offering sanctuary.

I met with three Iraqis who have been refused asylum in this country, all of whom had been threatened by Islamists back home. One had lost his shop to jihadi violence, another a brother. The Home Office wants to deport them back to Iraq.

Of two million Iraqi refugees currently outside of the country, some 30 per cent are minorities, mostly Christians, according to the UN: the bulk of them in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, unable to work and living in desperate poverty. Many in Syria now fear that it will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic communities.

The Christian population of Iraq has declined from over one million in 2003 to below 400,000 today. Overall some 1,000 Christians have been murdered since the 2003 invasion, and over 60 churches have been firebombed – the worst single incident being the October 21, 2010 massacre of 60 men, women and children at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, which alerted the world to their suffering. Two weeks later Islamists detonated 11 bombs in Christian suburbs of Baghdad, killing five Christians and wounding 33, including a four-month-old baby.

Many of the worst attacks have been in Dora in south Baghdad, once a thriving Christian area, with two cathedrals, a Catholic seminary and a theological college. Christians are threatened with conversion, exile or death, the women forced to wear the veil (which long predates Islam, and was actually invented in Iraq by the ancient Assyrians). Now in the capital’s churches priests say Mass to empty pews, those faithful brave enough to attend having to factor in two hours to get through police and army checkpoints and endure body searches.

The situation is similar in Mosul, which for centuries was the heart of Aramaic Christianity, a bustling cosmopolitan city of Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Jews and Persians as well as various obscure religious minorities, the Sabaeans, Shabeks, Mandaeans and the Yezidis.

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 Syriac-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 Sabaean).

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 in size by two Assyrian Orthodox churches. Assyrians speak neo-Aramaic (a modern form of Syriac) and identify as a distinct Semitic ethnic group; and although the term Chaldo-Assyrian is often used to emphasise the unity of Iraqi Christians, 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 a modern ethnic term to the 19th century, but nonetheless consider themselves to be one people.

Another Aramaic dialect even closer to that spoken by Christ is still spoken in Syria: Maaloula, a beautiful hillside town 40 miles north of Damascus, is the last surviving stronghold. For now.

Iraqi Christians living in the West all say the same thing – that they have no future in their homeland. Britain, in particular, does nothing to encourage their arrival, fearful that it would set off an exodus, and paralysed by a vague politically correct idea that we should not favour Christians over Muslims. But the difference is that Muslims in Iraq, Sunni, Shia or Kurd, have safe areas to go to – Christians, and other minorities, have nowhere.

Another option favoured by many Assyrians is the creation of a 19th province in the Nineveh Plains, within a small area where Christians and other minorities consist a majority. Chaldeans tend to be more critical, feeling it would become a magnet for terrorism that could only be defended with a permanent Western military presence. The option favoured by Britain is to encourage them to stay in a multi-ethnic Iraq, despite their protests.

Why is this our responsibility? If you don’t believe in the concept of national honour, then it isn’t, but historically the Assyrians were strong allies of the British and that has often cost them. The Assyrian Levies fought with the British in two world wars against pro-German Arab forces, and in one interwar Iraqi uprising. Iraqis in Britain do not understand why we give refugee to Abu Qatada but leave friends and allies in the lurch.

Sweden, in contrast, does recognise that Iraqi minorities have special needs; their Migration Board states 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 to give preference. 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. Without a homeland, they were defenceless.

When, ten years later, the Iraqi regime turned against its Jews an ancient community, 2,500 years old, was tragically destroyed in just three years, but at least Iraqi Jews had a country that would offer them safety. Where do Middle Eastern Christians go if life becomes intolerable?

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

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