David Verghese: Britain and religious minorities in the Middle East

In late 1918, a stream of refugees slowly made its way downwards from Persia and Anatolia towards the town of Baquba, in modern-day Iraq. These were the remnants of the Assyrian Christian population of the Middle East, expelled from their homelands by a vicious campaign of violence. Thousands were murdered and many more forced to flee with almost nothing; whole villages were reduced to little more than a memory.

It was here that the United Kingdom intervened. British soldiers escorted refugee columns away from the violence and protected them in temporary camps; British administrators organised the creation of villages in Mesopotamia where Christian refugees were settled; the Assyrian minority grew to number over a million and became one of the most prosperous in Iraq. [i]

Once more, Middle Eastern Christians are in danger, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their homelands yet again. In Iraq, the Christian population in 2003 was 1.4 million. Today as few as 250,000 remain. A similar story has panned out in Syria – before the conflict, 1.7-1.9 million Christians lived in the country, while by 2019 about 300,000 had left the country. They flee not only war and poverty, but also relentless sectarian attacks by Islamic extremists like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Many have made their way to Europe, while many more are internally displaced within the region.

The present regime on asylum is inadequate for protecting Middle Eastern Christians, and religious minorities more generally. Over a thousand Syrian refugees were taken in by Britain in 2018; of these, not a single one was Christian. This is despite the unique risks faced by Christian refugees even in exile – many are forced to hide their identity or face violence and discrimination in countries like Jordan or Turkey. This is an abdication of our duty towards persecuted religious minorities. Britain should aim to match European allies like Poland by taking in at least several hundred of the most at-risk Christian refugees from the region.

The official policy towards Christian refugees seems more than just mere indifference; at times, it verges upon discrimination. Recently, headlines were made by the case of an Iranian Christian asylum seeker whose application was dismissed by the Home Office on the basis that Christianity was not a peaceful religion and thus his conversion could not be bona fide. This case is symptomatic of a genuine lack of both compassion and understanding towards religious minorities. Converts from Islam in Iran face official harassment and even incarceration if they remain in the country.

However, if Middle Eastern Christians are to survive and thrive in their homelands, rather than merely in diaspora, Britain must also exercise its soft power to strengthen safeguards for these groups.

Pressure could be placed upon Middle Eastern governments to protect the political and personal rights of Christians in the region. A key part of this is allowing meaningful Christian involvement in political institutions – this ranges from reforming the endemic corruption of minority-list elections in Iraq to advocating for an autonomous federal area for minorities in the Nineveh Plains, policed and governed by those groups who have been failed the most by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments.

Beyond political reforms to safeguard Middle Eastern Christians, Britain should also work closely with NGOs focused on religious minorities, such as World Relief, helping reconstruct communities devastated by war. Wherever possible, the goal should be to rebuild rather than to facilitate departure; to create the conditions to enable Christians and other minorities to flourish in the Middle East.

A Christian exodus from the region is not inevitable. Christianity is an integral part of the Middle East and has survived for millennia – there is no reason why it should fall away now. But to protect Christian communities, a concerted effort is required, and Britain is well placed to provide leadership for any such effort.

David Verghese is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[i] Further detailed discussion of the camps at Baquba and the events leading up to them can be found in ‘The Baquba Refugee Camp: An Account of Work on behalf of the Persecuted Assyrian Christians’, by H.H. Austin. (link)