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British Government accused of disregarding plight of Syrian Christians

Syrian refugees near the Turkish border (CNS)

A Catholic peer has criticised the Government for rescuing Muslims and gay people from Islamic State terrorists while disregarding the plight of Christians.

Lord Alton of Liverpool accused Ministers of perpetuating a “one-size-fits-all” policy toward refugees that effectively gave Christians facing genocide the same precedence as “marauding young men” who robbed and sexually assaulted hundreds of German women on New Year’s Eve.

He has argued that Christians, “who represent no threat to this country”, were fleeing Syria and Iraq because they face extermination because of their faith and has asked both the Prime Minister and the Home Office to do more to help them.

He is concerned that the Government is relocating refugees taken uniquely from Muslims in “formal camps” along the border of Syria while ignoring displaced Christians, most of whom are not living in such camps.

The Government has already shown a willingness to give special protection to people on the basis of the sexual orientation, Lord Alton said.

But Lord Bates, the Home Office Minister, said in a letter to Lord Alton that the Government would not “discriminate” on grounds of religion in helping refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The Minister said the Government was working closely with the UN High Commission for Refugees “to identify cases … in need of resettlement according to agreed vulnerability criteria”.

The UN, he said, was reaching out to Christians living outside the camps and encouraging them to register as refugees and to seek assessment and possible resettlement.

Lord Bates said: “The UNHCR’s seven vulnerability criteria are considered by us and other resettlement countries that use them as sufficiently broad to include all those who require a durable solution outside the region, including those whose religion or ethnicity makes them vulnerable.”

He added: “Please be assured that the vulnerability criteria used by the UNHCR does not discriminate on religious grounds. As many Christians are likely to be particularly vulnerable and it is highly likely that some will qualify under the criteria.”

In a letter over Christmas, Lord Alton had told Lord Bates that the vulnerability assessment framework was inadequate in helping Christians escape ISIS, and claimed it was being used to over-ride the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that offered better protection.

“The 1951 Convention is absolutely clear about the grounds for a well-founded fear‎ of persecution. ‘Religion’ is one of the first criteria which the Convention mentions,” Lord Alton said in his letter.

“‎It must not become the case that the layering of complicated administrative procedure becomes a means to nullify the effectiveness of the Convention in relation to religion as a criteria accepted by the British government.”

“If gay people [rightly] qualify as ‘vulnerable’ then Christians should too,” he continued. “You will know of the considerable weight of evidence of assassinations by ISIS of Church leaders; mass murders; torture, kidnapping for ransom in the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria; sexual enslavement and systematic rape of Christian girls and women; forcible conversions to Islam; destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries, and Christian artefacts; and theft of lands and wealth from Christian clergy and laity.

“It is for these reasons that people are fleeing to places of safety. ‎Christians and other religious minorities like the Yazidis face genocide and the UK should take steps to recognise that by offering those who cannot return to homes occupied by ISIS a route to safety in Britain.”

Speaking after receiving the response from the Government, Lord Alton attacked UK policy as flawed.

“In one sense, when Ministers boast that Christians are not ‘discriminated against’ they are right,” he said.

“It’s far, far worse than discrimination – a campaign of total annihilation is underway, which is why these minorities should be discriminated in favour of.

“Even when measured against their own obsession with ‘non-discrimination’ – appropriate to domestic employment or social issues but not to genocide – their policy makes no sense in humanitarian, security, community cohesion or ethical terms. Of course we should discriminate in favour of those most at risk, not least because we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable.

“Instead of creating a false even-handed dichotomy British policy should actively search out, and be weighed in favour of, those who are suffering the most: those who are on the receiving end of the very worst of ISIS’s campaign of beheadings, unspeakable violence, forced conversions, rape, and dispossession of homes, livelihoods and thousands of years of faith, culture and identity.”

David Cameron, who has publicly shown sympathy for the Christians of Syria and Iraq, did not reply to a letter sent by Lord Alton in September asking the Government to include them among the 20,000 refugees due to be resettled in the UK.

The Government is also deeply reluctant to recognise the plight of the region’s Christians as genocide.

Pope Francis has said he believes the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq constituted genocide while Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need revealed in a 2015 report that persecution was driving Christians from Syria and Iraq so rapidly that they might disappear from those countries within as little as five years.

Hillary Clinton, the US presidential candidate, has also said that she believes there was now sufficient evidence to show that the ISIS campaign against Christians was genocidal.