by Abigail Frymann Rouch
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (right) and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Thimotheus Alshamany visit the Mar Mattai monastery near Mosul, Iraq, last week
A DELEGATION of senior Middle Eastern clergy are pleading with British government ministers to do more to support their congregations, many of which are failing under the political pressures in the region.
A group of patriarchs and archbishops attended an unprecedented meeting earlier this month, which took place just before the service in Westminster Abbey at which the Prince of Wales praised the courage of Middle Eastern Christians in the face of persecution (News, 7 December). The group also talked with the Prince at Clarence House, where it is understood that they were joined by the Government’s religious freedom envoy, Lord Ahmad.
Church charities working in the Middle East, along with Christian peers such as Baroness Cox and Lord Alton, have criticised the Government for not earmarking aid for Christians and other religious minorities. Targeted violence has led to high levels of emigration, placing their long-term future in the region in doubt.
The meeting with the Foreign Office Minister Lord Bates, and the Department for International Development Minister Alistair Burt, at Westminster Central Hall, discussed how the region’s Christians could be helped, especially in the aftermath of the Islamic State’s (IS) campaign of violence against anyone who was not their favoured shade of Sunni Muslim.
Archbishop Habib Hormuz Al-Naufali of Basra, representing the Baghdad-based Chaldean Patriarch, said afterwards: “I said to them, Daesh [IS] is still growing underground, and we do not know what will be the future.” A lack of security was leaving religious minorities and poorer Muslims ever more vulnerable, he said.
The Coptic Archbishop of London, His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, said that Alastair Burt “spoke very openly, particularly about intolerance [towards] Christians in some communities.”
The Archbishop said that it was, “of course”, acknowledged that, although many Iraqis were in great need, Christians were under particular pressure, since their numbers had fallen by about 90 per cent in 30 years.
Canon Anthony Ball, chairman of the charity Embrace the Middle East, who organised the meeting, asked why far fewer Christian families from Iraq and Syria had been offered asylum in Britain than Muslim ones. A Freedom of Information request found that, of the 4850 Syrian refugees accepted by the Home Office via the UN’s refugee agency last year, only 11 were Christians, even though Syria’s pre-war population was about ten-per-cent Christian.
Archbishop Angaelos said that it was acknowledged at the meeting that many displaced Christians missed out on aid and asylum places because they were too scared to enter Muslim-dominated UN camps. Government ministers and clergy had agreed there should be a “collaborative approach” between church leaders and the UN to ensure greater numbers were registered.
No pledges or decisions were made at the meeting. The Revd Nadim Nassar, executive director and founder of the Awareness Foundation which promotes interfaith collaboration, was pessimistic about further changes: “It was all a show.”
But Canon Ball said this week that the purpose of the meeting had been to improve communication among the charities, and between them and the Government, and “to demonstrate to the Government that we’re being joined up.”
Christian Aid and Tearfund have not earmarked aid specifically for Christians in Iraq or Syria. Both said that they followed the Red Cross principle of giving aid on the basis of need alone.
Christian Aid said that this included interfaith relationship-building work in Iraq; and Tearfund said: “Often we find ourselves working with minority groups outside of the camps, as there is a tendency for minorities to create their own informal refuge apart from more dominant groups.”
Internationally, charities working with Middle Eastern Christians have welcomed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, signed into law in the United States by President Donald Trump on 11 December.
This permits the United States Agency for International Development to work with faith-based groups; defines as “genocide” crimes perpetrated against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria; and commits the US government to pursuing those responsible for such crimes. The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, the Rt Revd Bashar Warda, has said of the law: “Its implementation must be complete and swift, otherwise the help it brings will come too late for us.”