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Home Office turns down visas for Syrian archbishops

09 December 2016


Still standing: a damaged statue of the Virgin Mary in a gutted church in Qaraqosh, to the east of Mosul, in Iraq

Still standing: a damaged statue of the Virgin Mary in a gutted church in Qaraqosh, to the east of Mosul, in Iraq

THE Government has shown that it does not care about the persecution of Christians overseas by refusing visas to three prominent Syrian Orthodox archbishops, the most senior Syrian Orthodox cleric in Britain, Archbishop Mor Athanasius Toma Dawod, has said.

Archbishop Dawod, who is the Metropolitan and Patriarchal Vicar of the UK, had invited three of his colleagues from Iraq and Syria to attend the consecration of their Church’s first cathedral in Britain last month.

The clerics were denied visas to enter the UK, however — actions which made a mockery of any claims by the authorities that they were concerned about the persecuted Church in the Middle East, Archbishop Dawod said on Tuesday.

The Archbishop of Mosul, Mor Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, and the Archbishop of St Matthew’s, Mor Timothy Mosa Alshamany — both from Iraq — were denied visas on the grounds that they might claim asylum and because they did not have enough money, Archbishop Dawod said.

A third prelate, the Archbishop of Homs and Hama in Syria, Mor Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, was told by the British embassy in Lebanon that his application was bound to fail because he was a Syrian national.

The two Iraqi Archbishops now live in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, after they and the Christians they served fled the advance of Islamic State two years ago.

Archbishop Dawod said that it was absurd to suggest they would use a temporary visa to the UK to apply for permanent asylum.

“They are archbishops — they have responsibilities in Iraq,” he said. The pair also already have long-term visas for the European Schengen zone and other countries such as Australia and the United States, should they wish to claim asylum in the West, he said.

“We don’t think they care about us. If they cared about us, why wouldn’t they give us visas? We know we are persecuted people.”

Instead of banning the Archbishops from the country, the Government should have used the opportunity to learn from them about the plight of their Church and their people, Archbishop Dawod said.

The Prince of Wales was among the VIPs to attend the consecration at St Thomas’s Cathedral in Acton, West London, last month. Archbishop Dawod said that he had not contacted the Prince to ask for his help, but that he would write to the Home Office to complain.

“The Home Office must recognise they are not normal people: they are archbishops,” he said.

On Tuesday, 62 clergy including two bishops added their names to an open letter to the Home Secretary from the Revd Chris Phillips, Vicar of St Mary's, Willesden, recording their "dismay" that the three archbishops were unable to attend the consecration.

Among the dozens of clerics from across the Church of England who signed the letter were the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, and the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson. 

"These are respected Christian leaders, whose bona fides could easily have been checked with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office at Lambeth Palace, or with the Syriac Orthodox Church in this country," the letter says. 

The Home Office's reasons for refusing the visa applications "do not seem to take seriously the reality of the Archbishops’ urgent and serious pastoral responsibilities in their home countries," the signatories wrote. 

Reforms needed to be urgently made to ensure the visa system was more equitable and compassionate, the letter concludes.

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, has added his voice to those asking the Government to think again.

“It all seems rather odd. I don’t know whether there will be some under-the-radar discussions, and some assurances about their financial support while they’re here,” he told Premier Christian Radio on Monday.

A Home Office spokesman said: “All visa applications are considered on individual merits and applicants must provide evidence to show they meet the requirements of the immigration rules.”

Despite the perceived snub by the Home Office, Archbishop Dawod said that he was confident that ordinary Christians in the UK supported the persecuted Church overseas. “I think many people care about us and many people do not accept the decision and the strategy of the Government.”

On several occasions in recent years, foreign Anglican priests, including some from Kenya and Sudan, have also been denied visas to enter the UK, despite invitations from their link dioceses in the C of E (News, 4 April 2014, 23 May 2014).

Battle for Mosul. The effort to expel Islamic State (IS) from the Iraqi city of Mosul continued this week, but the initial swift progress of the campaign when it began last month has almost entirely stalled.

The capture of Mosul by IS in 2014 was followed by the flight of almost all of the region’s Iraqi Christians, including the two archbishops who have now been denied visas.

After months of argument, Iraq’s central government launched an offensive to eject IS and retake Mosul in November, but despite a few early successes, fighting has degenerated to a stalemate in the suburbs of the city.

Nevertheless, some Christians have returned to the few villages that have been liberated from IS control. Bells were rung for the first time in two years and makeshift masses celebrated in burnt-out churches in towns such as Qaraqosh, which was once home to Iraq’s largest Christian community.

Tearfund has warned, however, that tens of thousands of people have been freshly displaced by the fighting around Mosul, and that as winter sets in, some could die. The aid agency has been distributing winter clothing at a refugee camp for those who have been forced to flee.

Tearfund’s Iraq response manager, Betsy Baldwin, said that the charity has prepared supplies, including cooking stoves and mattresses, to distribute to at least 5000 people, with more to come in the future.

Rather than simply handing out clothes, Tearfund distributes vouchers to internally displaced people, which can then be used to buy clothes in the sizes and styles that each person prefers.

“The Tearfund shop will help us so much,” one refugee, Ryad, said. “The clothes are good quality and the shoes are good quality, which is what we needed as winter comes. My wish, my hope, is that we return back to our homes, to restart our life there.”

The charity is asking supporters in the UK not to send clothes, which are instead being sourced from a local supplier, but to donate money to its Iraq appeal: www.tearfund.org/give/middle_east

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