Why a Syrian archbishop was on the verge of tears in Parliament yesterday

Archbishop Jeanbart (Aid to the Church in Need)

At the House of Lords yesterday Aid to the Church in Need launched the 2015 edition of their regular report into Christian persecution around the world, Persecuted and Forgotten?

There were testimonies from Christians around the world; Timothy, who had escaped North Korea twice, a country where 200,000 Christians are in prison camps; and Victoria, a young girl from Nigeria who, with a translation from her parish priest, explained how Boko Haram had come to her village and snatched the children, the boys to become child soldiers and the girls their wives. Her mother had taken her children and sneaked out at night, walking through forest to reach safety. Many more are still there.

The most passionate witness, however, came from Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, who had given the forward in the booklet.

The Archbishop, clearly distressed and almost weeping, talked about the “savage executions by ISIS” and told how “just four days ago three Christians were killed in north Syria” because they refused to convert.

He lamented that “We are forgotten in Syria and elsewhere, for political reasons” but also chided western media stations for giving a misleading impression of the conflict; he called it a “Propaganda campaign to mislead public opinion” and that the message westerners were told that the war was about “Democracy and freedom” was “a big lie.”

Before the war “Civil life was very good, it got together all denominations, and it has now been destroyed. The country is in a flood of blood. They have destroyed everything – our industry, our churches, they are destroying man.”

He also paid tribute to Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old antiquities scholar beheaded by ISIS in Palmyra.

“He spent his life for the culture of the world because Palmyra has been declared a patrimony of the world; he’s Muslim and I consider him a martyr for the culture of the world.”

Asked about recent developments, the archbishop followed up on comments he made last week about the Russian intervention, saying that Christians in Syria did feel hopeful that things were now turning around. He recited a story of how the church had in 2010 pooled money for a number of couples to build starter homes, and that since then many of the young people involved had withdrawn their money because they intended to leave the country. This week, he said, one couple changed their mind as they now felt there was hope for Syria.

The British government clearly doesn’t agree. Afterwards Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood MP gave a speech blaming President Assad for the country’s woes and saying that he had no place in a future Syria.

The question hanging in the air is: what exactly does Britain and the United States have in mind for a post-Assad Syria? Something along the lines of Iraq or Libya, perhaps? I do wish that when the Government suggested overthrowing a regime it would publish a full detail of what exactly it intended to replace it with, and hired about 100 superforecasters to give their assessment.

Perhaps the most important point the archbishop raised was that of apostasy, saying that “If one day I find myself believing in Mohammed I will leave my bishop’s responsibility and become a Muslim, and if a Muslim thinks that Christianity is true, he must do the same. No one has to object this choice.”

This week the British government was forced to pull out of a £5.9m prison deal with Saudi Arabia, a country which plans to crucify a young man for attending an opposition rally, because of pressure from Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Gove. But we still sell them plenty of arms, and seem to make no attempt to force them to improve their human rights record, or to allow freedom of and from religion.

Britain has a lickspittle attitude to the Saudis, illustrated by the decision to fly the flag at half mast at Westminster Abbey following the death of the Saudi king, but apostasy remains a crime across the Islamic world.

Many of these countries receive aid from Britain; in others our soldiers have died defending the state from extremists; in others still the elites are able to swan around London, enjoying the benefits of the civilised world without making any concessions to it. Perhaps as a first step Britain should deny visas to the citizens of any country that does not allow its people to change religion or abandon it. It’s certainly in our interests that the Gulf kingdoms are unaffected by revolution, which would almost certainly make life worse, for all the Arab-speaking countries now declared safe by the Foreign Office are monarchies, while all those considered unsafe are republics. But it’s certainly time that the playboy princes of the eastern world came to appreciate that stability is ultimately based on compromise.

Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends