Chris Sugden calls on the British government and the CofE to provide a safe haven for Iraqi Christian refugees

`Convert, leave or die’ Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians face this choice. Hundreds have been either beheaded or crucified. Many thousands have left everything they had in life and are living in crowded and temporary shelters. They got brief exposure in this summer’s headlines but mainly along with the Yasidis who were trapped on a mountain.

Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, pleaded on BBC radio for Britain to help them by joining other nations in offering asylum. But answer has there been none. So far the UK has taken 54 refugees from Iraq and Syria.

Arguments for and against

Why? Probably because Iraqi Christians have no economic or political significance. Some within their leadership disagree about whether the best solution is for them to flee to other countries, or find a safe haven provided by the military might of others in their native lands as was provided to the Kurds two decades ago. The latter argument is emotionally compelling. Christians have been in Iraq for centuries and members of the people of God since Jonah went to Nineveh. The land is their home, their culture and their identity.

And there are arguments against offering asylum. The UK government has its own pressing problems dealing with seemingly uncontrollable immigration from the EU. Others argue that providing asylum would do Isis work for them in removing `unbelievers from the lands they want to control.

Leaving home

In the pogrom against the Jews in Nazi Germany in the Thirties, many found refuge in the UK and other European countries. From 1930 it took 15 years and a global war to rid the world of Hitler. Western politicians estimate that it will take at least three years to rid the Middle East of Isis. In that time how many of the religious minorities will have died?

Leaving home, culture and identity is a huge wrench and not undertaken lightly. But God is not bound to nations nor by them. The nation-state as a concept is so nineteenth-century. The nation-states in question here are of very recent origin and look set to disappear in the near future. Moreover, God moves people around: he displaced the Jews several times; Jesus himself was a refugee to Egypt as a baby; and he taught that those facing the great tribulation should flee to the mountains. God is bound to his people, not to geographical borders.

Hospitality to the suffering and vulnerable is a Christian tradition stretching back to the early Church when Christians went out to take in and care for weakling babies and ill people left out to die.

What can we do?

It is not sustainable to provide supplies for the seven million displaced persons in the Middle East whom the UN classes as refugees. Their aid needs are 60% underfunded, according to the UNHCR. It is sustainable to provide immediate shelter and a transit camp for 100,000 Iraqi Christians who want to flee to the UK sovereign bases in Cyprus and from there be dispersed to host countries willing to offer them asylum (which the UK currently does not).

But what if parishes and churches offered to take in two or three Iraqi Christians each, for, say, three to six months? There are 16,000 churches in the Church of England, quite apart from other denominations who so generously support the Christian NGOs. That would mean a handful per church. When I floated that possibility in our church at the end of August, three people immediately offered space in their homes. In another part of the country someone offered 50 places in their holiday park. That would livingly demonstrate the Body of Christ in action a great witness to the Gospel.

Calls from the bishops

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of West Yorkshire and the Dales, Manchester and Coventry have all called for Britain to offer asylum to those fleeing Iraq but have as yet had no response. Twelve further bishops have written in The Times asking for a managed exodus for the most vulnerable families to willing host countries including the UK. Christian peers Baroness Cox, Lord Alton, Lord Curry and Lord Dannatt wrote to The Times in September urging the government to provide such refuge and grant asylum. Councillor Mary Douglas, a member of a Pioneer church, and a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, writes: `I pray that the Church in the UK will be foremost in opening our homes to refugees: You could make your own point by writing to your MP urging this course of action and where possible making an offer.

And do we doubt that such people will bring the blessing of God with them?

This article fïrst appeared in Evangelicals Nov, October 2014

Christian `exodus’

Sir, We urge the government to promote a co-ordinated approach towards the estimated 100,000 displaced Christians around northern Iraq/Kurdistan, many of whom have nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Their fate is now in the hands of outsiders after a forced exodus from areas they have inhabited since New Testament times. Western non-government organisations and churches are providing immediate aid, and the response by UNHCR, the Department for International Development and the British public has been substantial; however this level of aid cannot be sustained, and a longer-term solution is required.

Many of the displaced Christians and Yazidis have no confidence that a political or military solution will lead to their being able to survive back in their home territory. Many Christians are looking to find asylum in other countries. Australia, Canada, Sweden, Germany, France and others have proved remarkably generous but not, so far, the UK, despite it being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and a member of the UN Council of Human Rights.

The Right Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford; the Right Rev Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough; the Right Rev Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester; the Right Rev Andrew Watson, Bishop of Aston; the Rev Dr Robert Innes, Bishop of Gibraltar; the Right Rev Robert Patterson, Bishop of Sodor and the Isle of Man; the Right Rev Andrew Proud, Bishop of Reading; the Right Rev Jonathan Gledhill, Bishop of Lichfield; the Right Rev James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester; the Right Rev Clive Gregory, Bishop of Wolverhampton; the Right Rev Mark Rylands, Bishop of Shrewsbury; the Right Rev Geoff Annas, Bishop of Stafford; the Right Rev Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester

This letter appeared in The Times on 12 September 2014