THE Synod spent Tuesday morning exploring violence against
religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
It began with a panel discussion led by the Bishop of
Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth; before the
Archbishop of Canterbury chaired a question-and-answer
session. At the end of the session, the Archbishop of
York led the Synod in prayers.
The panel included the first Muslim ever to be invited to
address the Synod: Sheikh Fuad Nahdi, the
executive director of Radical Middle Way. Alongside him was the
General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK,
Bishop Angaelos (an ecumenical representative on
the Synod); the Revd Rachel Carnegie, joint
executive director of the Anglican Alliance; and the Bishop
of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines.
Introducing the discussion, Dr Cocksworth said that members had
"read and even seen with our own eyes" incidents of violence and
persecution, including beheadings. "We have seen religion seen as a
weapon of war, and human beings targeted and eradicated because of
their faith. We have seen two beautiful countries descend into
chaos." He said that the threat facing Christians "crosses the
continents and mocks the Universal Declaration of Human
Bishop Angaelos told the Synod that its interest and support in
the plight of persecuted Christians was one of the things that
touched many people on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Countless
Christians were displaced across the Middle East, and many were in
urgent need of humanitarian aid, in particular food and medicines.
"People are feeling vulnerable, betrayed. There is a lack of trust
with their neighbours they have lived side by side with for
generations, and their own government and rulers there. Some of
them feel abandoned. Having said that, they do not feel
He said there were four key issues he wanted to raise. He urged
the Synod not to forget the needs of persecuted Christians, even as
the media and politicians moved on. "There is also an immediate
need for a humanitarian response," he said. "It's great to have
wonderful intentions, but they need it now."
The third issue was asylum. Not all Christians in the Middle
East wanted to leave, although some in Iraq and Syria in particular
said that they could not survive there any longer.
"The fourth plea is [that] we stop making distinctions between
the Western and Eastern Church, because we are one Church and one
body," he said. "When one suffers, we all suffer. This division has
become cosmetic and artificial. We need to feel and to react as one
Sheikh Nahdi said he was neither a theologian nor an academic,
but wanted to speak about how the British Muslim community was
reacting to the events in the Middle East. "The vast majority of
the Muslim community in this country are paralysed by what is going
on. They are looking for prophetic action, but they find none. What
is going on is totally incomprehensible." He said that some
"younger" and "weaker" members would become frustrated and try to
find someone to blame.
"The persecution of Christians in the Muslim world is heinous,
and totally unacceptable to any sane human being, whether they are
Muslim or otherwise," he said. "But we should not forget that the
Muslims have borne the brunt of these extremists and fanatics."
People of faith could provide something that no other solution
could provide. Re-educating Muslims that they had co-existed with
Christians and other minorities for centuries was crucial, he said.
"But we don't get time to do that, because all the pressure on us
is to try and justify things which are unjustifiable." Continuously
condemning Islamic State and other jihadist groups was, he said,
meaningless, as they didn't listen.
Bishop Baines argued that it was "no good just reacting to the
latest issue". The seeds of the issues in the Middle East today had
been sown in the 1980s. What was happening now was the seeds of
what would occur 30 years hence. On offering asylum to those facing
persecution, he emphasised that voices in the Middle East were
"diverse. There are those saying 'Don't denude our lands of
Christian presence and witness. If you open the gates for asylum,
you may be creating a long-term problem for us here.'"
He also noted that raising the question of asylum here was
difficult because "we are incapable of having an adult debate about
immigration." Ms Carnegie spoke of the "simply devastating" facts
on the ground: "Behind these statistics are horrific tales of
impact on individuals and families." There was a need for a
comprehensive long-term strategy, and it was "crucial that all
actors pull together". These actors included the DfID, Christian
NGOs, and the diocese in Cyprus & the Gulf.
There were examples of faith charities' reaching out to other
communities, such as Islamic Relief, bringing help to Christian
families. Parishes and individuals could do several things: listen
and learn; pray; give; and act informed by those on the ground.
The question-and-answer session followed. The Bishop of
Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, asked about
the "vast diaspora of displaced communities all round the world",
and how to mobilise it.
The Revd John Chitham (Chichester) spoke as
someone who had ministered in the Middle East, and was married to
an Arab Christian. He asked whether President Assad and Hezbollah
could be given "credit for the fact that they have been living with
and helping religious minorities for decades". He suggested that
the omission of Saudi Arabia from the report on the debate produced
for the Synod was "strange", given that it was "in the eyes of many
the root of religious intolerance in the region". He also
questioned whether trade, not just aid, could be linked to
religious freedom. Finally, he asked about the right to
Canon Celia Thomson (Gloucester) asked what
processes could be put in place to ensure that the perpetrators of
violence were brought to justice in international courts.
Bishop Angaelos spoke of the need to help expatriate communities
get their message across: "Quite often . . . they are trying to
communicate but becoming frantic rants, because they come from a
place of extreme passion." They required help to deliver their
message "in a way that is heard and responded to positively".
He explained: "What they say is legitimate and valuable, but
sometimes it is lost in translation, quite literally." He
encouraged the Synod to "listen sympathetically when they express
themselves in that way, to cut through the expression and listen to
what is actually being said".
Sheikh Nahdi said that, from his understanding of Islam, "there
is nothing like apostasy: the right to choose religion is a right
of every individual, and it should be free. There is no compulsion
in religion." A round table of scholars which he had organised had
concluded "categorically" that a fatwa condemning to death a Muslim
who had converted to Christianity was "based on politics, not
theology; so it is totally obsolete and against the very essence of
The issue was one of "fear, and not knowing about the other. We
know much less about our own faith and even less about the other."
He emphasised that there were many Muslims in Muslim lands who did
not have the choice to practise their religion, and that, while a
lot of churches had been destroyed, "many more times have been the
shrines and mosques that belonged to groups that are not part of
the extremist craziness that is going on."
On the question of offering persecuted Christians asylum, he
argued that "they should not be forced to make such a decision. But
also it is good for Muslims to have Christians among them to
enhance their own spirituality. . . It is an opportunity to learn
about the magnanimity and greatness of God."
Bishop Angaelos argued that "a lot of this is not really about
Christians and Muslims, but the radical fringe and everyone else."
He also suggested that talk of a tapestry of co-existence "has been
real in some places, but is almost a mythical reality in others,
because we speak about it, but it is actually not there".
There were, he said, "not enough voices like Fuad's, because
while there is an idea of no compulsion in religion, we know on the
ground this is not always true. There is not only compulsion, but
retribution. . .
"What we need is to challenge our very good Muslim friends to
say 'This is wrong,' but also, once they speak, to support them,
because once they speak, they become marginalised." The tapestry
could still be a reality, "if the very silent majority speaks out,
because what we have now is very vocal minority that is silencing
everyone else. What we have seen is that when the Christian voice
is added to the encompassing Muslim voice, that becomes the
majority, and that can be very effective."
Ms Carnegie said that "there is a real value in trade and aid
being linked to human rights, including the right to religious
freedoms." But she said that "the other side" of that was for
"critical trading arrangements globally to lift people out of
Poverty, she said, "creates the very conditions where extremist
ideologies can take root and fester".
Bishop Baines asked, rhetorically, "What sanction can you
possibly apply to people who have no fear, and to whom human rights
are meaningless? whom you can't threaten with death, because they
would welcome it?"
"The international courts", he said, "are going to have to
address this in due course. It poses a huge challenge to the
Vasantha Gnanadoss (Southwark) asked whether
the media had a part to play in correcting perceptions of Muslims.
When imams spoke about persecution, it was not reported.
The Revd Mark Ireland (Lichfield) said "Our
concern as Christians about freedom of religion shouldn't extend
simply from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also
from the doctrine of creation."
The Revd George Newton (Guildford) said that,
in many Muslim-majority countries, other verses from the Qur'an
were used to argue that "when somebody converts from Islam, they
should be killed under sharia." He asked what could be done to
In response, Bishop Baines said that there was a problem with
religious literacy in the media; and he cited a recent example
where "somebody quite senior in the BBC wanted a story about
'Christian Yazidis'." The media "have a responsibility to tell the
truth, and to present all sides of a reality, not just a selected
bit that fits pre-ordained narrative". But, at the same time,
"Journalists are losing their lives in relatively large numbers for
going to very dangerous places to try and tell the stories. They
can only tell the stories from where they are, and what they see
Sheikh Nahdi said that the biggest problem Muslims had with the
media was Google. "The internet now dominates the media," and that
on it "you can find justification for anything."
Bishop Angaelos said that documents such as the Declaration of
Human Rights had not invented such rights, but safeguarded
God-given liberties. "We are much more credible as a Church when we
speak for the liberty and rights of all. Otherwise, we sound very
tribal and discredited," he said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable
being a protected Christian while a Muslim next to me is
victimised, alienated, or persecuted."
Sheikh Nahdi said that most Muslims had come to the UK because
of its religious freedom. He said that the onus on advocating this
freedom was on them rather than attacking people in "far-away
deserts" who opposed religious freedom. Muslim intellectuals spent
too little time discussing the essence of the faith. For instance,
he said, the Qur'an granted "massive rights" to one's neighbour,
regardless of his religion, but this was not widely understood.
The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) asked what
the C of E could learn from the "courageous faith" of suffering
Bishop Angaelos said that, while he wanted to raise awareness of
Christians' plight, he was aware of "the victory in that
persecution". "If we are fully dependent on him, then he will grant
us the grace and power that we need in that situation." He always
told Christians in the Middle East not to fear Islamists' killing
them, as the worst thing they could do was to make Christians hate