Comment

The government’s religious illiteracy is making life harder for persecuted Christians

Fr Benedict Kiely with Sister Ban Madleen

Archbishop Nicodemus, the red-haired Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Iraq, is a man who smiles and laughs easily. He also weeps: in the early days of the ISIS onslaught on the ancient Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain, he was captured more than once on YouTube crying at the horrors of what the Islamists had done to his people. He has been dubbed “the crying bishop.”

In four years of friendship with Archbishop Nicodemus, I have only seen him angry once. That was when, sitting in his residence in Erbil last March, I asked him why the British Home Office had denied him and two other bishops, one from Iraq and another from Syria, visas to enter Britain for the consecration of the first Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Britain in November 2016. The archbishop replied angrily: “They denied me because I wasn’t ISIS.”

The denial of the visas to the three bishops was something of a public relations disaster for the Home Office. But it does not seem to be one they have learned from. In April of this year, another Iraqi Christian, this time a Dominican nun, Sister Ban Madleen, applied for a visa to visit her sick sister in Wales for a month. It should have been routine: last time Sr Ban visited, in 2011, she was granted a visa and complied with its terms. But this time her visa was denied because, among other reasons, “she had not travelled” in the past seven years.

The Home Office should be able to guess at the reason. Since her last visit, Sr Ban, along with more than 120,000 of her fellow Christians, has been driven from her home by ISIS. Her convent in the ancient Christian town of Qaraqosh was destroyed. She was forced to flee to Kurdistan. In Erbil, she set up a kindergarten for refugee children.

I sat with Sr Ban in her convent last month in Erbil’s Christian neighbourhood of Ankawa and urged her to apply again. After the publicity generated by the last refusal, I assured her that this time it would be successful. On June 12, she was refused again. The Home Office, which I had believed to be staffed with humans rather than robots, once again noted her lack of travel since 2011.

Last year also saw the closure of the Institute of St Anselm in Margate, Kent, due, according to many reports, to continual problems with visa applications from the students – mainly foreign priests and religious leaders. Among other issues the Home Office had problems with were priests “not being married” and nuns who failed to have personal bank accounts.

These are issues which come up again and again in visa denials: doubts over whether priests or nuns can fund their visit (even though these are only temporary applications) and a disbelief that they would return. That suggests a lack of religious literacy.

The former Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr Andrew Bennett, told me that one important function of his office was to train Canadian diplomats to have a sensitivity towards religion in the countries where they would be assigned. As he said, many of these young men and women had been educated in a very secular environment, not unlike Britain, and they needed to understand the background and culture of the people they would be working with. So, for example, it would not be hard to train a diplomat to understand that members of religious orders do not have personal bank accounts but that they would be adequately supported during an overseas visit. Similarly, a basic understanding of the Church would allow the official to understand that a bishop of a diocese is unlikely to “refuse to return” – his people might have something to say about that.

As for Archbishop Nicodemus: not long after his visa application was rejected, Hungary – still the only country in the world with a government ministry dedicated to helping persecuted Christians – gave the archbishop and another Iraqi bishop citizenship so they can travel freely.

One denial of a visa to a persecuted Christian may be a mistake. Two denials might be an unforeseen aberration. Numerous denials appear to be a pattern. The most heart-rending experience when visiting these survivors of persecution is listening to their complaint that the West has abandoned them. It is always dangerous to allege bias, but, at least in terms of the facts, the Home Office seems to be part of the problem.