The Arabs once had a saying about the British: ‘Better to be their enemy, for that way they will try to buy you; for if you are their friend, they will most certainly sell you.’ For Iraq’s Christians it has proved to be sage advice.
It is a lesson learned by a 25-year-old engineering student Wissam Shamouy, an Assyrian Orthodox Christian from Bakhdida in Nineveh province, who fled after jihadis gave him a second warning: leave or die. Shamouy’s mother paid a Kurdish smuggler to take him to Turkey and from there he made his way to England because he spoke the language, and was told Britain helped with ‘humanity protection’.
Instead, he was arrested for arriving with false documents and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for 122 days. ‘I had never been in prison in Iraq,’ he says. ‘I lived with criminals, they were fighting in front of me, taking drugs. My mother didn’t know anything about me for three months, nobody did.’ He now survives on the generosity of other Iraqi Christians and his church, receives no income support and has been waiting since last September for news of his case.
We meet at the Assyrian Centre in Ealing, home to the 5,000-strong UK community. On the walls are photographs of the Queen and Agha Petros, the first world war leader who fought alongside the Allies against the Turks. The Assyrians suffered appalling losses in that period; at least 250,000 died in the sayfo (‘sword’), the Assyrian genocide.
Afterwards, Assyrian forces remained steadfastly loyal to the British, helping to defeat the pro-Axis Baghdad government in the second world war, as well as seeing action in the Balkans. Small in number but as ferocious as their ancient forebears, the Assyrian Levies called themselves ‘Britain’s Smallest Ally’. Many British-born Iraqis are citizens on account of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ military service.
Nineveh is the historic homeland of this Semitic minority, who trace their faith back to the 2nd century, and their Aramaic tongue much further. But it is also an al-Qa’eda stronghold and its capital, Mosul, is a very dangerous place to be a Christian. In October 2008, 10,000 fled the city after Sunni gangs went on a killing rampage that left 13 Christians dead.
Like Shamouy, Waseem Finaya, 25 and also from Bakhdida, looks young and scared. Sunni militants murdered his brother last year, and Finaya told the Home Office that he had been threatened because of his religion — but they gave no impression of knowing about the situation for Christians, and said they would send him to Baghdad.
That is telling, for the exodus of the Christians from Iraq is the great ignored story of our age.
Up to 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion, but just 400,000 remain, many of them elderly people who have used up their savings to pay for their children to escape. Since 2003, 950 Christians have been murdered, and over 60 churches bombed, the worst incident being the massacre of 50 worshippers at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on 31 October 2010. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recently warned that ‘the end of Christianity in Iraq’ was approaching.
Within Iraq, there has been a steady flow north to the relative safety of Kurdistan, but they are not staying, for land is scarce, unemployment the norm, and Christians are subject to ‘crime, mafia or militia’, in the words of one cleric. Assyrians have a historic enmity towards the Kurds, and do want to be part of a Kurdish state.
And yet the Home Office deports Christians to the ‘safe’ Kurdish zone, the fate awaiting Saeed Alabazi, a shop-owner who fled Mosul in 2004, even though he has no connection to Kurdistan and calls it a ‘different country’.
But what can Britain do? As the Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt warns, any special refugee status might ‘act as an encouragement to extremists to push the Christians out’ and would give ‘an entirely false impression that somehow they are western’. Burt says that Britain can only give help to individual Christians, although even that does not appear to be the case in practice.
Iraqi Christians have heard the Foreign Office arguments before, and they do not want to leave. They tend to be fiercely patriotic, and see themselves as connected to an ancient civilisation enriched by many layers of language, religion and culture. Islamisation is drawing a black veil over that rich, colourful history.
Yet sanctuary, though it would accelerate the exodus, would save lives, and cost Britain little. Central to our modern national myth as a nation of immigrants is the story of the French Huguenots, who came as refugees in the late 17th century, yet little notice is paid to the group who today most resemble them, an industrious, highly educated minority who share the faith of the British and are persecuted on account of it. We should help them.